Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Interview with Men's Shinty President George Watts
How long have you been playing shinty? I joined shinty half way through my first year. So, wow, I guess three years now.
What position do you play? I’m a goalkeeper.
What is your leadership role? I am the president of the men’s shinty team. Although, all of the roles have different shinty specific names, so technically, I am a chieftain.
Hometown: Cardiff, Wales.
Year of study: Fourth year.
Degree: International Relations.
What is your favorite thing about shinty? My favorite thing about shinty is probably that almost everybody who plays it is completely rubbish at it. It is a nice way to do sport. Most shinty players are people that want to try and play competitively but also don’t take themselves too seriously.
It’s mostly played just in Scotland, which I think makes it unique. St. Andrews alums have started clubs in Bristol and Cornwall. But, it is mostly played in the highlands and universities in Scotland. Out of all the university teams we are the worst. Which technically makes us the worst in the world. That might sound like an egotistical claim to make but it’s the shocking truth. We had a tournament where we scored zero goals over sixteen games. Edinburgh has one shinty team: it is a combination of the University of Edinburgh, Heriot- Watt, and Napier. Each of these individual universities is bigger than St Andrews, and they have just one team, so competition is definitely out there.
Now we have a lot more people than we used to, we’ve definitely expanded, which is great. St. Andrews during Covid could not do much else besides sports in person. I am definitely proud of the fact that even though there would be no objective, competitive reason to increase the size of the team here in St Andrews, we have grown. Not only that, but more people keep coming along and joining shinty almost every week, which is great.
Why did you start playing shinty? I played futsal when I first came to St. Andrews. For whatever reason I stopped playing and wasn’t doing a sport until the spring term. Some of the people who lived on my corridor in halls went to shinty every week. So, finally, I started going to the socials with them. I think I went to the socials for about six months before even going to a training session. Being in goal is nice because I was not automatically the worst player since I had skills from be- ing a goalkeeper in other sports - I was a goalie in football growing up. Something good about shinty is that I don’t have to go to the gym five times a week. We also don’t get in trouble if we can’t make a training session. Shinty isn’t a burden but rather something fun I wanted to do. There’s also a relatively low percentage of Scottish people here; other universities have people from the highlands, where they really know how to play shinty. In this way, I didn’t feel like I would be that far behind others since I’m not very good at the game.
What is something you think most people don’t know about shinty but should? Most people don’t know anything about shin- ty at all. It’s a pretty niche sport.
I work in Aikman’s in the cellar bar. The shinty men’s team has been going there every Wednesday for over ten years. At least two or three people from the shinty team usually work at Aikman’s well. There are tons of stories passed down about what it was like in the past. The cellar bar is lined with posters and photos of shinty, and of course, there are camans (shinty sticks) hung up on the walls and ceiling; the last twenty years of Presidents have their signed camans hanging there.
I’m waiting for my caman to arrive. I ordered it maybe four months ago, but I’m still waiting on it. Camans are all made to order, so they are never in stock. There are only two or three people in the world who make them. That’s actually a really cool part about shinty: you call them and tell them what you want and they’ll make it for you. Ordering a caman takes a long time, but it is handmade to order. Camans cannot be bought in any store or ordered online and delivered in a week or so, they are hand-crafted, custom pieces made in Scotland. There are some camans on the wall in Aikman's that are even older than I am!
A caman is shaped like a triangle at the end. You can use both sides of it, compared to a hockey stick, where you can only use one side. We can try to do both forehands and backhands - key word here being try. When we play really good teams they keep it up in the air on their sticks which is ridiculous to watch. Also, something people who are even familiar with the game of shinty might not know is that there are different camans for each position.
Hockey is a derivative of shinty. What came first, the chicken or the egg? There’s an actual answer here: shinty.
What is the best part about playing on a team for St. Andrews? With playing on a sports team here, what I see more now that I’m older are the new guys coming in. During Covid, when people’s social interactions were quite limited, it was definitely harder for them to make friends in halls. So, being part of a sport allowed everyone the opportunity to get outside and meet different people. Random, often quite eclectic people turn up to shinty.
Something different about shinty is that there is no trialing and therefore no real deadline placed on us as to when we have to technically join. There are al- ways one or two new faces a week.
We all hang out together on Wednesdays of course, for our club socials. But then, I think a lot of the team spends most other days together as well and really do become close friends. It’s great that it is such an oddball, random group of people. I guess, since it is sort of a weird sport, there is something that attracts us all to it. Some players even end up in academic families together.
Being able to meet your people is such a cliché answer, and not necessarily shinty specific, but it is definitely true.
Another unique aspect to shinty that is pretty cool is that when you go to games, because there is a shortage of teams, it is not only students that play. Not only do we play against other universities, but also fully grown men’s shinty clubs too. A couple weeks ago we played against a Glasgow alumni over fifty team. A lot of university graduates, whether from St. Andrews or elsewhere, will move to somewhere like London and join a London shinty club team. So it has sort of spread throughout the UK, with the university players taking it with them as they get older. But the most predominant and the most skilled players come out of the highlands of Scotland, for sure.
In a town like St. Andrews, that is so dominated by its student population, it has been really cool to play against older guys. Again, since shinty is not a widely played or very popular sport, it has also been nice to show up to tournaments and be able to recognize a lot of the faces. Playing against people from different age groups has made for a unique experience that I do not think I would have gotten if not for joining shinty.
Another great thing about shinty is that it can be a mixed gender sport. Obviously, here at St. Andrews, we have our men’s team and our women’s team. But we often travel to mixed tournaments where it can be six-a-side: three guys and three girls. There is not usually that big of a difference in ability, since most people have not grown up playing it, we are all sort of starting from ground zero.
However, the girls team here is a lot better than the guys. They have girls that have played for England and Scotland. I also like that it feels like such a historically rich sport. Even though I have only played for three years and most St. Andrews students just pick it up when they get here, the game itself goes back hundreds of years.
If you could change one thing about shinty what would it be and why? Two things immediately come to mind. First, shinty, historically, has a certain reputation. The shinty club used to be a bit more raucous. Now, the shinty club is different. We are significantly nerdier than people think. Some sports teams around town will still use that old reputation against us. If they make a mess or misbehave in a pub at a Wednesday night sports social, they will say that they are the shinty club. Shinty used to have more of a lad culture but now it is definitely an eclectic group of people who are not so rowdy, definitely nerdy. We have moved away from that type of culture, we pride ourselves on being a lot more inclusive in a lot of ways. I would want this to change the view that some people have of shinty. We are an eclectic group of nerds that happen to like playing shinty.
The second thing I would want to change about shinty as a sport, is the helmet rule. If I could, I would force everyone to wear helmets. It concerns me that some people don’t wear one. One ball to the face can do a lot of damage. It might seem cool to not wear a helmet, until you end up in hospital with an injury that could have been avoided.
If you could pick any other sport to play, which would you choose? It would be cool to be fit enough to play football or rugby, younger me had that kind of athletic motivation. If I were playing one of those sports it would mean I would be fit. However, I definitely do not regret choosing a sport that I had never heard of. So maybe going along to korfball or hurling would be my choice. I guess I would want to choose something not so mainstream.
Extra: An album recommendation If people want to immerse themselves in Scottish culture, particularly in shinty culture, I would encourage them to listen to the album ‘Caman’ by the band Caman, a Scottish folk band. The album is full of cute, little songs about shinty and Scotland.
Image: George Watts