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Raising sticks forjunior shinty

Tomnacross have not won the fame of Kingussie, who are undoubtedly the world's best shinty team, but they are the best at primary level, says their coach and headteacher Graham Bell

Shinty has been all over the sports pages of newspapers across the country as a result of Kingussie earning a place in history as the most successful team in any sport in the world, with an astonishing run of victories over the past decade.

Their latest was shinty's showpiece final, the Camanachd Cup, played in Fort William. There the champions demolished the local opposition to go into the record books with their seventh successive win of the game's premier trophy.

At primary school level, another shinty team has been notching up record-breaking achievements too. On the morning of the Camanachd Cup final, teams from Lochgilphead and Tomnacross primaries met at Spean Bridge, 10 miles from the big venue, for another national final, the Schools Camanachd Association's Bank of Scotland Cup.

Tomnacross, from the Highland village of Kiltarlity, west of Inverness, cruised to a 5-0 victory over their Argyll and Bute opponents. This was the first time any school had won the cup for the third consecutive year.

Tomnacross have been no strangers to record-breaking over the past three seasons. Last year they became the first school ever to win both the MacKay Cup and the Bank of Scotland Cup competitions two years running. Add to this the Oban National Sixes tournament this season and last, and other successes this season, including the National Indoor Five-a-side trophy and the BP National Indoor Sixes. Not bad for a rural school with a roll of 80.

As headteacher and team coach, I am proud of the team's achievements.

I also pay tribute to the parents. A lot of travel is involved in playing at national level and parents have a vital role in transporting and supporting the team.

The team's success over the past two years has been due in no small measure to the Mainland twins, Craig at full back and Martin at full centre. Anyone who has watched them will testify to their terrier-like approach to the game, combining skill with a large measure of determination. Martin set a record this year when he picked up the Anne Cameron Quaich for man of the match at the MacKay Cup final for the second year in a row; and Craig won the Oban National Sixes player of the tournament trophy.

Quite a few primary teams have a girl, or maybe two, in their line-up.

Girls have played regularly for Tomnacross over the years but we have raised a few eyebrows this year with three girls in the forward line, including the captain, Ruth Campbell, and one on the subs' bench.

It is great to see the girls involved, especially as they can compete as equals with the boys at this stage. The disadvantage is that they will probably never make good hockey players because they are so used to playing the ball above their heads.

We recently hosted a team from our Irish exchange school, St Mary's in Dublin, as part of a friendship started in 1993. Next month, 20 Tomnacross Primary pupils and former pupils will make the return visit. They will play a series of shintyhurling games, do some sightseeing and share some craic.

The four-day jaunt will include seats for everyone at the all-Ireland hurling semi-finals at Croke Park in Dublin, among a crowd of about 60,000 and an atmosphere that's usually absolutely electric, and will end with a ceilidh. The children stay with families rather than in a hostel, which has tremendous benefits. For one, they learn something of Irish culture from within.

Kiltarlity is in the heartland of a traditional shinty area, with Tomnacross Primary players moving on to the local Lovat Shinty Club's under-14, then under-16 and adult teams.

The Schools Camanachd Association, of which I am president, runs two primary national competitions - for the MacKay and the Bank of Scotland cups - and three secondary ones, at under-13, under-14 and under-16 levels.

Over the past 10-15 years, there has been a sharp decline in the number of teachers directly involved with school shinty, both at primary and secondary levels, but more club coaches are involved. Communication between coaches and schools is one of the challenges we face. The point is that these are school teams playing a traditional sport which is deeply rooted in their Celtic heritage and it deserves to be encouraged.

The work involved in organising school shinty nationally is extremely demanding. There are probably about 50 dedicated people keeping things running, often against all the odds. My wife, Linda, has three secretarial hats (for Tomnacross Primary, the Schools Camanachd Association and Lovat Shinty Club), as well as being the school team's first aider, and she does a mountain of chores. Although not a native Highlander, I have been involved with the game for 23 years and feel passionately about it, especially at youth level.

As a class committed head, I teach a P6-P7 class, a fair number of whom are shinty players. Through the game, I have got to know the players, as they have me, in an environment outwith formal schooling. This has had enormous spin-offs for the teacher-pupil relationships within the school. The children see me as someone outwith school who shares their interest in the game, together with all their successes, failures, aspirations and frustrations.

Tomnacross Primary is one of the few schools remaining where the children play shinty at break times on a daily basis. Shinty is a game that you need to play regularly to keep your eye in. A high level of hand-eye co-ordination is required to strike a small, fast moving aerial ball with a slender stick, so children who are doing it daily are obviously going to be more skilful than those who only pick up a club for an hour once a week.

This has to be a big factor in Tomnacross's success.

Shinty has a long and proud tradition. It is part of the culture of the Highlands. Although I am not a great fan of Kingussie, they are the best shinty team in the world, and by the same logic Tomnacross are the best primary team in the world.

Scotland is the only part of the world where shinty is played seriously at the highest competitive level. It is important to treasure that and pass it on.

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