The tradition of secondary school shinty is under threat, from clubs and other sports. It is just one of the issues the Schools Camanachd Association will discuss today, says Roddy Mackenzie
The Schools Camanachd Association will use its annual general meeting in Fort William today to map out its strategy as it faces up to challenges on several fronts.
With the Camanachd Association, the governing body of shinty in Scotland, having decided to change to a summer season and start its main competitions in the spring, the SCA needs to assess how that will affect its events.
The SCA also has to look at ways of getting more secondary schools in the south of Scotland, which has established clubs such as Inveraray, Kyles, Oban and Bute, back into competitions. The north, with clubs such as Kingussie, Newtonmore and Fort William, is more heavily represented.
One point to consider is that the number of teachers leading teams in schools has fallen sharply over recent years, with club coaches taking on board most of the guidance of shinty players.
To add to the association's problems, the Bank of Scotland, which has sponsored a primary school cup since the mid 1980s, is withdrawing its backing at the end of this season. However, negotiations to fill the void are understood to be at an advanced stage.
Primary headteacher Graham Bell is president of the SCA. His school, Tomnacross Primary, in the Highland village of Kiltarlity, west of Inverness, has won the SCA Bank of Scotland Cup for the past three years, this year defeating Lochgilphead Primary 5-0 in the final held on the same morning as the Camanachd Cup final in Fort William. His school is one of the few that still plays shinty every day and concedes the schools game is at a crossroads.
"It's very healthy in primary schools but, in the past couple of years, we have had a problem getting secondary schools in the south to play," he says.
"We piloted a one-day competition last season which went OK in the north but in the south only two schools entered and they could not manage to find a suitable date to play each other.
"There used to be six to eight schools in the south playing but the interest in playing for a school seems to have faded away. There is so much age-group shinty being run by clubs that there is not the incentive for players to turn out in competitions for their schools."
Mr Bell tells of one school which reached the semi-finals of a competition, had received letters of permission from parents to go and booked a bus but on the day of the tie only seven of the 15 players turned up. The other eight had gone to play for a football team.
Mr Bell, as his school team's coach, is well aware that an athletic shinty player who shows promise at school could also make a football or rugby player and shinty is having to face up to increased competition from other sports that have money to invest at grassroots level.
"In years gone by, shinty was the only sport children had here. Now there are a lot of sports vying for a youngster's attention, such as soccer, rugby and golf," he says. "These sports are all hands-on nowadays and can throw money at bringing in the top coaches.
"Youngsters are seeing the likes of soccer all the time on television and the glamour that it has. Compare that to travelling to play shinty in poor weather, on a flooded pitch and in the winter. A lot of games are cancelled.
"We are seeing more and more people coming to the Highlands from cities such as Manchester, London and Glasgow. The children have been brought up playing soccer and want to continue.
"There is more and more competition now in the rural areas. It could prove to be the death knell for schools shinty."
Mr Bell believes that as good hand-eye co-ordination is essential for shinty, it is important to play as much as possible. His pupils practise at break times daily.
Indoor six-a-side shinty - played with plastic sticks and a softer ball - has proved popular in primary schools, especially as bad weather can mean little 12-a-side shinty is played from October until the end of March.
Girls play alongside boys in national primary competitions - Tomnacross Primary had three girls, including the captain Ruth Campbell, in its forward line last season - but in the past dropped the game in their early teenage years as the boys went on to join established clubs. There are indications this is changing.
"Nothing is engraved in stone but there tends to be mixed shinty up to under-14 level," explains Catherine Cameron, publicity officer of the Women's Camanachd Association. "After that the girls now tend to join clubs if they are keen to keep on playing.
"As with any sport, it is difficult to hold on to girls when they are between the ages of 16 and 19. A lot depends on whether there are established clubs nearby."
However, one area of growth in the sport is women's shinty, with particular enthusiasm for the game in universities. There are now 10 established clubs which play regularly in competition and the WCA recently staged its second Camanachd Cup.