Tough game but the girls can do it
Shinty may be regarded as the toughest of sports but there are signs that the gentler sex could hold the key to the future wellbeing of the game.
Two years ago, a women's national league was set up for senior players and there are now 10 teams taking part. But it is providing a steady flow of players to secure the future of the league that is the chief concern of Alan McMillan, the national team sport development officer for shinty. He is aware of a gap in the market and believes that the women's game can show the way for the men.
"Of course there is opposition to girls playing the game," admits Mr McMillan. "We can have the situation in shinty-playing areas where parents are quite happy for their sons to play but would not let their daughters play because it is too rough.
"But the women's game has a lot of things going for it and is not just physical hash-bash. It is nine-a-side as opposed to 12-a-side on a full-sized pitch and it gives players more touches on the ball.
"That means it is better for skills development, and the women's game is more skills-based as opposed to being about pushing and shoving."
Mr McMillan is concerned with bridging the gap between primary schools and the senior game. It has not been hard to get players to take up the mini-version of the game, first shinty, but more difficult to get girls to play competitively.
He believes that a lot of girls are lost to the game after their interest has been cultivated at primary school, as there are few secondary schools offering girls the chance to develop their skills. But that is changing.
A new initiative will begin at Oban High School this week where inter-house girls' shinty competitions are taking place. Garry Reid, shinty development officer for Argyll and Bute, is convinced there is an untapped market for girls' shinty.
"There are between 10 and 12 primary schools in the Oban area playing girls' shinty, but there has been nothing for them to go on to at secondary school," he explains. "By running lunchtime clubs and inter-house tournaments at Oban High School, we're hoping that 40-60 girls will play regularly. They can then go on to play for the new women's team in the area, Oban Lorne, so we have pathways for them to follow.
"There is tremendous potential for the girls' game in the area. It's really the only outdoor team spor for them, as there are no all-weather hockey pitches up here."
If the pilot scheme is successful, it will be rolled out to other areas and Mr McMillan is confident that if the game can take off in the high schools, then it will provide the catalyst for the senior national league to grow further.
"It is the schoolgirls who will make the women's game stronger," Mr McMillan continues. "If you look at the backbone of the Glengarry team in the national league, then it is provided by girls who have learned their skills at school. It's more difficult for adults to learn the game from scratch and the Glengarry team is fit, fast and skilful."
Mr McMillan is keen for the game to be accessible to as many girls as possible, and the fact that the nine-a-side game can be played on existing football pitches has been a bonus.
With portable goals, girls can use any existing football pitches and have even played on Sundays, which has been frowned upon in some areas.
"We need easy access for players and the last thing we want is to make it difficult for girls to play the game," he says. "The Oban High initiative is a good one but it is the local school sports co-ordinator, Mary McLean, who has provided the crucial link and enabled it to go ahead.
"In some ways, there are more opportunities for girls than boys, and a lot depends on where you are. There is a good set-up at Tighnabruaich Primary, where the local club is involved, and there have been a couple of very good girls come through the school."
First shinty, set up five years ago to encourage primary school children to play, has been a big success, with the small-sided game and the soft ball helping to bring in new recruits.
"The traditional shinty-playing areas will still play first shinty with wooden sticks, but areas like Caithness and Glasgow use the new plastic sticks and the usage is different depending on where you are in the country," explains Mr McMillan.
"But, if the Oban High scheme goes well, we will roll it out to other areas like Highland, who have shown an interest, and we intend to take it out elsewhere after that.
"The senior women's national league has gone well but is still in the embryonic stage and is not bound so much by the rules of the Camanachd Association as the men's game.
"It is still finding its feet but the fact that there are now 10 teams involved shows it has come a long way in two years, with clubs now having women's sections."