Home » Blog Post #3 – Shinty through the Wars

Blog Post #3 – Shinty through the Wars

The 8th May 2020 is the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in 1945. On this day, celebrations took place throughout the Western world to mark the surrender of Nazi Germany, which heralded the end of World War II in Europe. Bonfires and beacons were lit across Badenoch, and in the following days reverends addressed their congregations, pipers piped, and communities held dances.

Campbell Slimon of Laggan has this recollection of the time:

The bothy where Campbell’s father spent VE Day was originally situated at Presmuchrach (Gaelic: Scrubby field of the pigs). Photo credit: Highland Folk Museum

”I was three on VE Day and it is one of my first memories. In the morning we – being my mother, sister, my twin sisters who were both still babies, and the shepherd Patty, his wife and his three sons – went on the “Wee grey Fergie” and cart to what we called the “Cut Wood” in Glentruim. Nessantullich is its proper name.  It had been cut down in the First World War by Canadian lumberjacks. We built the bonfire with the dead wood on top of a rock with a view up to Dalwhinnie and down to Newtonmore and Kingussie. We came back in the afternoon with mothers and a picnic tea and lit the bon-fire. It was very windy and we had the picnic in the shelter of the rock. We boiled the tea in a billy can hanging from our tripod. We had five flags. I had the Norwegian one which I trailed over the side of the trailer. It got caught on a branch and tore and I got ‘laldy’. Father, a sergeant in the Home Guard, was not there as he spent his lambing in the Presmuchrach bothy near Dalwhinnie (now situated in the Highland Folk Museum). Petrol was rationed so he had to spend three weeks there.”

Although VE Day signalled an end to the fighting in Europe and was a cause for celebration, it was also a time to reflect on the lives of the men who tragically didn’t come home to re-join their families and loved ones. Both world wars had taken their toll on the shinty playing communities across the land, and the local teams of Newtonmore and Kingussie sadly did not escape this fate. Shinty players were fit, healthy and strong, and signed up in large numbers to join their local regiments of the 1/4th Cameron Highlanders and the Lovat Scouts.

In this blog post I’ll take a look at some of the shinty objects here in the collection and the wartime stories behind them.

William MacGillivray, Kingussie

In 1914, the Camanachd Cup was won by Kingussie, beating Kyles 6-1 in Possil Park, Glasgow. The team was captained by William MacGillivray.


1914 Kingussie Camanachd Cup winning team. MacGillivray front row, right, kneeling. Photo courtesy of John Robertson


Shortly after this victory, on 4th August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. On 5th August, the Kingussie branch of the Cameron Highlanders left Kingussie train station to start their journey to the Front, and sadly, a number of the men didn’t see Badenoch again.


Cameron Highlander volunteers gathered at Kingussie railway station. Photo courtesy of John Robertson


The Battle of Festubert in the Artois region of France, was one of the earliest and most devastating of WWI, with the loss of over 16,000 British soldiers over the ten days from 15th to 25th May 1915. The battle claimed the lives of a disproportionately high number of men from shinty playing communities, especially those of Skye, Beauly and Kingussie.

William MacGillivray, who months before had captained the winning Camanachd Cup team, was killed in action on the 18th May at Festubert.

William’s teammate John Macpherson died on 27th May from injuries sustained at Festubert. John had played in the MacTavish Cup winning team in 1914 but missed the Camanachd Final through injury.


William MacGillivray (left) and John Macpherson (right). Photos courtesy of John Robertson

Kingussie Camanachd Club held a dinner in the Star Hotel in 1919 to celebrate the Camanachd Cup win from 1914, and to remember the players who died during the war. Five of the team were missing, including William and John. It was the most emotional gathering of the Kingussie Club there has ever been. There were 70 people at the dinner. The Club’s Chieftain, the Count de Serra Largo, whose own son Percy had been killed during the war, spoke of those who had made the supreme sacrifice going “over the top”. He also presented a cap to each of the 1914 team or their representatives. At the dinner it was resolved to continue and raise a team for the 1920 season. (1)

In 1978, William MacGillivray’s players cap and war medals were gifted to the Highland Folk Museum. The museum was also given MacGillivray’s silver mounted caman, which had been presented to him as captain of the winning team of the 1914 Camanachd Cup.


William MacGillivray’s silver mounted caman, war medals and player’s cap. Photo credit: Highland Folk Museum


Despite the tragedy of the war years, and losing so many of their team members, Kingussie built themselves back into formidable form. They went on to win the 1921 Camanachd Cup final – the first since before the war – beating Kyles 2-1 at Inverness. They also took the MacTavish Cup that year, beating Skye 4-1 at Inverness.

In 2014, the Kingussie team wore jerseys embroidered with the names of Camanachd Cup team players from 1914. These included the names of the five men who died in WWI. The team were victorious, beating Glenurquhart 4-0 in Bught Park, Inverness. They took the cup back to Kingussie, honouring the players from 100 years past.


Kingussie Camanachd team, wearing the 1914 memorial jerseys. Photo courtesy of John Robertson


Dr Johnnie Cattanach, Newtonmore

Like Kingussie, Newtonmore Camanachd Club also suffered terribly from the wars. It lost six of its shinty players during WWI at battles including Gallipoli, Ypres and the Somme, and then thirteen of its players or former players during WWII.

WWI claimed the life of Dr. Johnnie Cattanach, still to this day widely regarded as one of the finest players of the game. He also played hockey at international level. Johnnie played for Newtonmore Camanachd Club up to 1913, captaining the team during their winning streak in 1908-09.


Johnnie Cattanach in 1907-08 Newtonmore team photo with the Camanachd Cup. Photo courtesy of Hugh Dan MacLennan


Dr Cattanach died on 27th July 1915 from wounds sustained at Gallipoli, whilst serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps. His death was deeply felt in Newtonmore.

Team-mate Malcolm Macdonald: “The greatest of all shinty players was undoubtedly Johnnie Cattanach…His passing was a terrible blow to us all, for he was in a class by himself on the field of play, and was an inspiration to the team. We always maintained he was the best of all in Badenoch, or as Donald Ruadh used to say – aye and in all the Badenochs”. (2)

Newtonmore gathered themselves together once life could resume again, and the team won the first post-war MacTavish Cup competition in 1920, and then eight more times before the Second World War stopped play again.

The annual shinty lecture held at the Museum every autumn is named in honour of Dr Johnnie Cattanach.


Building the community

Amongst the many traditional Highland buildings here at the Museum, almost all will have hidden stories to tell about the two world wars.

Shinty players had full time jobs in addition to playing the amateur game in their free time. The tight-knit communities and small businesses in Badenoch would have all felt the effect of the men not returning from war.

John Macpherson, who had played alongside William MacGillivray and also died at Festubert, had been a joiner at Fraser’s in King Street, Kingussie. In 1996 the joiners’ workshop was saved from demolition and moved to the Highland Folk Museum.


Fraser & Co Joiners, where John Macpherson worked, now situated at the Highland Folk Museum. Photo credit: Highland Folk Museum

Many shinty players seem to have passed through Fraser’s workshop, which went on to become Macgillivrays and Macphersons in the 1930s (as far as known, not the same branch of the families as William and John who had lost their lives at Festubert, but please let us know if you can cast any light on this). In 1963 it was taken over by Kenneth Macrae. Amongst others, Newtonmore shinty legends John Mackenzie and Sandy Ralph both worked at Macrae’s joiners. Sandy also helped to dismantle, move and reconstruct the joinery to the HFM site in 1996.


The shinty pavilion at the Highland Folk Museum, which came from The British Aluminium Co. Ltd. Works in Boleskine, Foyers, has still-visible damage from WWII. On 13th February 1941, a German air raid on the works, left large shrapnel dents in the corrugated roof of the pavilion. These have been left in place as part of the building’s history, rather than being repaired when the pavilion was moved to the Museum in 2013.


Boleskine shinty pavilion. Photo credit: Highland Folk Museum


Play behind the lines

For the men stationed out in France in WWI, shinty was a way to relax and to switch off from the horrors of war – and to keep connected to their beloved game and memories of home.

In November 1915, the 5th Camerons started a shinty club and wrote to John Macpherson, of Macpherson’s Sporting Stores, Inverness, requesting that camans and balls were sent out to them. The following year, the 1/4th Camerons which included many Badenoch men, did the same, penning a letter of thanks to Councillor John C. Dallas of Kingussie who had arranged the supplies:

“1/4th Cameron Highlanders’ French Camanachd Club, April 1916

Dear sir,- We the undersigned, desire to express our sincere gratitude to you and other kind donors for the gift of shinty clubs which we recently received here. We greatly appreciate your hearty response to our appeals for “camans”. Since receiving them we have had some keenly contested games, and we can assure you that no moments of our spare time are more enjoyable than those we are able to devote to the good old Highland pastime.  Again assuring you of our sincerest appreciation of your generosity. – We remain, yours gratefully” (3)


The men would have received Macpherson sticks like this one in the collection, dating from the early 20th century. Photo credit: Highland Folk Museum


“Shinty for Highland soldiers in France – Mr John Macpherson, the well-known Inverness shinty player, with some of the camans collected on behalf of the troops” – Photo and caption credit: Press and Journal


Camans were also sent out to troops in WWII as shown above in the photo from the Press and Journal, October 24th 1939, featuring John Macpherson with son Allan and a soldier.

Shinty was played too by those captured during the war and held in prisoner of war camps, most famously in Stalag IXc.

Iain MacKinnon, who played with Inverness Shinty Club, wrote to the secretary of the club Mr Buchan, from Stalag IXc:

“Seventeen of our old camp, practically all North country boys, have accompanied me to this, our new abode….. The boys want me to ask if it would be possible to get a dozen or so clubs sent direct to our camp through the Red Cross. Being prisoners of war we can’t go to the wood for “bherans” ” [Gaelic: Bioran, a branch].

MacKinnon eventually acknowledged an Inverness parcel thus:

“We often speculate and conjecture here how it fares in our absence as the Lovat, Kingussie and Oban teams are represented by playing members, while not a few claim to be worthy exponents.  What about a note sometime, Mr Buchan, with the latest news, if any, about our favourite game?” (4)


Photo of a P.O.W. camp shinty team. The players with As on their shirts are Argylls, the rest are Camerons and Seaforths. (5)


Shinty goes on

As well as remembering here the shinty players who did not make it back from the wars and who sacrificed their lives, it is also right to remember the shinty stalwarts who did return, and whose lives were no doubt changed forever as a result of their experiences. While they can’t all be mentioned here, I’ll finish by just acknowledging two men – Sandy Russell and Tommy Wade.

Sandy Russell, of Newtonmore, spent many years during the war in POW camps. He returned to Badenoch in 1945. Sandy played for Newtonmore, and shortly after the war played in the famous Pots and Pans game in Edinburgh against Ballachulish, where pots and pans were given as prizes, instead of silverware. Sandy was a big local character and a gave much of his life to the community, serving as a councillor for nearly 50 years. He was hugely important figure in the Newtonmore Camanachd Club up until his death in 2000 and is fondly remembered across Badenoch and beyond.


Sandy Russell aged 19. Photo courtesy of John Russell


Tommy Wade of Kingussie joined the RAF in 1942 and completed a tour of operations with Bomber Command. Commended for bravery, Tom was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal and went on to serve in India until the end of the War. After the war Tommy returned to Kingussie, running the local pub and the paper shop, and dedicated himself to serving his community and local council. He was involved in a multitude of groups and in later years was awarded the title of Freeman in recognition of his dedicated service to the community. Tommy Wade was player, captain, referee, President and Chieftain for Kingussie Camanachd Club over the years. He still lives in Kingussie.


Tommy Wade, centre, with John Mackenzie (left) and Dondo Kennedy (right), at a Badenoch Shinty Memories event in December 2019. Photo credit: Badenoch Shinty Memories


The playing of shinty has only been stopped 3 times in the history of the Camanachd Association – for the two world wars, and now, in 2020, to aid in the fight against Coronavirus. In both the previous instances, it is shinty which has proved central in re-establishing the local communities, in building the villages back up to what they knew they could be.

Shinty, taking place as a sport, will play its part once again when the time is right. Ensuring the safety of players and spectators will be the challenge, but in the meantime, shinty is helping people through this difficult time. The wide network of friends, players, supporters, fans and rivals, are keeping in touch with each other, sharing memories, keeping alive the discussion.

Badenoch Shinty Memories Group are remaining active online and over the phone during the lockdown period, and have just produced a newsletter to keep connected to the community. Follow the group on Facebook. Email [email protected] to request a digital copy of the newsletter.

The Highland Folk Museum had planned to hold an event to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, with activities across the site. Sadly the museum remains closed and this cannot take place, but we look forward to welcoming back visitors when it is safe to do so, to help everyone explore the stories that the buildings and objects tell.


  1. Robertson, John. The Boys of the Dell; Kingussie Camanachd Club, A pictorial record of the first 125 years. 2014. Perth: Farquhar & Son Ltd. Pg 52
  2. Gibson, Rosemary. The Boys of the Eilan; Shinty in Newtonmore 1820 – 1945. 2015. Newtonmore: Newtonmore Camanachd Club. Pgs 117 -118, pg 213
  3. pgs 119 – 120
  4. Inverness Courier, March 24th “Arguments and yarns”.
  5. MacPherson, Roddy, “Shinty in POW Camp”, Shinty Yearbook (1982-83), pgs 47 – 48

Previous blog post – Blog Post #2: The Caman; an art and a craft.

Next blog post – Blog Post #4 – The Camanachd Cup