Blas Festival: Gloir Nan Caman/Home and Away
ON the eve of the Camanachd Cup in Inverness, the Blas Festival turned the clock back 100 years to think about the Cup game of 1914 and what was in store for those players far away on the battlefields of France and Belgium and World War I’s other fronts.
The young men of the Highland shinty squads were quick to join up and many paid the supreme sacrifice.
Beauly alone lost 25 men from its squad, narrator Hugh Dan MacLennan revealed, while the number of Lochaber players lost was well into three figures.
"The equivalent of up to 13 full teams in all were lost in World War I," MacLennan pointed out.
The true life stories were illustrated by songs and music from a band that included accordion ace Gary Innes — a "nae too bad" shinty player in MacLennan’s assessment of the Scotland and Fort William captain — various members of Lochaber’s musical Henderson clan and, for the Inverness show, singer Calum-Alex MacMillan.
However, it was piper Duncan MacGillivray who provided the evening’s most emotionally charged moment when he played the pipes that had been retrieved from the battlefield of Festubert where their previous owner, Beauly shinty player Lance-Corporal Donald Paterson, was killed in May 1915.
MacGillivray — appropriately enough a former member of the Battlefield Band — also revealed his links to shinty’s MacGillivray Cup, named in honour of a relation who had an interesting war himself, working in military intelligence with Lawrence of Arabia. Keeping the family connection, MacGillivray was also joined on stage by his four sons as The MacGillivrays of Culrossie.
After a lengthy opening half and a break, the story moved on to the aftermath of World War I.
Sorley MacLean’s poem An t-Earrach 1937/Spring 1937 spoke of how the young people of the Highlands were reviving the sport after the losses of the generation before — but with the awareness that another conflict was looming.
World War II had its shinty stories too, but fortunately not necessarily as tragic as the tales of the earlier conflict.
Take the Ballachulish Three, a trio of shinty players whose story deserved the Hollywood treatment, MacLennan reckoned.
Captured by the Germans in 1940, they escaped and made their way to freedom, speaking in Gaelic to persuade the Germans they were Russians, and putting on American accents to trick the Vichy French into believing they were from the then neutral USA.
The link between shinty and warfare was brought up to date with a piper from the forces’ own shinty team, but there was a commendable sense of neutrality on stage as the evening wound to a close with the appearance of specialist guests accordion player Stuart MacKintosh, just hours away from goalkeeping duty with Glenurquhart in the Camanachd Cup Final against Kingussie, and singer Davy Holt, who has penned a number of songs in praise of his own local team Newtonmore.
With the erstwhile rivals, including Fort William’s Innes, joining together for one last set, it provided an upbeat ending to an evening that provided a mix of emotions, and something to think about as well as tap a toe to.