The Camanachd Association is taking bold steps to hold on to youth players in high schools, writes Roddy Mackenzie
The Camanachd Association, having attracted recruits through its First Shinty initiative in primary schools, is now focusing on keeping players.
The sport's problem has been holding on to players once they go to secondary schools, as shinty is not on the curriculum. It is a problem now being tackled head-on.
Garry Reid, the governing body's youth development manager, acknowledges that more secondary schools need to play shinty if is to thrive and prosper.
He drives 30,000-40,000 miles a year in his work to improve the shinty network and ensure the sport has a strong future.
"Our major push is now at 12-to 15-year-olds," he says. "We've done a lot of work with primary schools and there are now a lot of them playing throughout Scotland, but the numbers tend to drop off when children get to 13 or 14.
"Getting the sport on to the school curriculum has been a problem and we are starting to address that. The Active Schools programme has helped and we are looking to set up strong links between schools and clubs."
The Camanachd Cup final in September will be played in Dunoon, Argyll, for the first time and Mr Reid sees it as the ideal opportunity to strengthen the game in local schools.
The signs have been encouraging so far. Argyll and Bute held a school sports festival last month and eight of the 10 secondaries in the area took part in the shinty event, including those like Hermitage Academy which have no history of playing the game.
"The only two schools in the area which were not involved - Tiree High and Islay High - both play shinty but it was difficult for them to raise teams to compete in all the sports in the festival, as their school rolls are so small," explains Mr Reid. "But we hope to have all 10 secondary schools playing in a tournament in September, which will coincide with the Camanachd Cup final."
Mr Reid is also working hard to bring the sport to new areas. The Camanachd Association wants to develop shinty in the central belt. Already there are programmes running in Ayrshire, with 20 schools playing at some level.
Schools in the Borders and Perth and Kinross are becoming more active and schools in North Lanarkshire are keen to adopt the game. Kilsyth Academy and Abronhill High in Cumbernauld are in the process of setting up after-school shinty clubs.
The problem in the central belt will be developing school-club links, but shinty clubs have sprung up in unusual locations. Aberdour and East Lothian both have established clubs now.
What is helping the game is the desire to promote the Gaelic language.
Gaelic coaching cards are being used in some schools, offering pupils the chance not only to brush up on their shinty skills but also on their language ability.
A new club has been set up in North Uist in the past year and Mr Reid is hoping that two or three more will start up in the western isles, so that schools can have their own development league and cut down on travelling to the mainland for competition.
Shinty is not played as extensively in Highland secondaries as many would assume and Mr Reid is keen to change that.
"Our big push for 2007 is in the Highlands. We want to get all 29 secondary schools in the region playing regularly. We're hoping that will be achieved over a three-year period," he says.
"There are only seven or eight currently playing in schools' competitions.
Hopefully we can set up a development league by the end of next year.
"We will use the Active Schools' co-ordinators to help us. We will be rolling out a coaching programme for S5-S6 pupils so that they can coach S1-S2 pupils, take teams and a legacy is left for the game.
"It would be great to see shinty on the curriculum in the Highlands, but influencing that agenda is much harder."