Shinty:   Game or Brawl?

In the Regency, it could be both, depending upon where and how it was played. Shinty is an ancient game, so old that no one really knows where or who played the first game. But it was certainly played in many places across the British Isles during the early nineteenth century. Shinty is a rowdy team sport which might be put to good use by the author of a Regency story.

The game of shinty through the Regency . . .

The name of this game has many variations, including shintie, shindy, shindig, shinnock, shinny, shinney, or shinnie. Nevertheless, the most commonly used name, during the Regency, and in modern times, is shinty. The Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, can offer very little information on the etymology of the word. The game is believed to have originated with the Celts and the name shinty is therefore believed to have been the Gaelic word which best represents the cry used by players during the game. However, the meaning or purpose of that cry is lost to history. To add even more complexity, the name of the game could vary from place to place, from county to county, or even village to village. The Gaelic name of the game used most often was camanachd.

Shinty is a game played with long sticks and a ball, by two opposing groups of players, over an open area of ground. Such games have been played in various cultures, at least since ancient times, if not earlier. The early Celts played such games, even before they migrated from the Continent to the British Isles. In fact, it is generally believed that the ancient Irish game of hurling, also played with a ball and sticks on an open field, inspired the game of shinty in Scotland. However, the origins of shinty in Scotland are so old that it is impossible to determine when, or in what form, it was first played there. Shinty had become especially popular in the Scottish Highlands during the seventeenth century, and was usually acknowledged as the national sport of Scotland. In the years that followed, the playing of shinty gradually spread south across Britain, and was eventually played as far south as the Home Counties and Cornwall. One reason for its popularity seems to be that it was considered to be good training for soldiers, since they would develop many of the skills needed in battle. That military purpose was long forgotten by the Regency, and shinty was played then purely for sport.

Today, shinty is played with a small, hard ball, a bit smaller than a modern-day tennis ball. It would have been played with a hard ball of a similar size during the Regency. Unlike the regulation shinty balls of today, which are made of cork covered with leather, the balls used in the game during the Regency were most often made of wood. The broad sticks used to play the game were also made of wood and the shinty stick is generally called a caman. Modern-day camans are typically made of hickory. However, the traditional wood for making camans was ash, which is the wood from which most camans would have been made during the Regency. Regulation camans today are about three and half feet long, but during the Regency they could range in length from three to five feet, depending upon the preferences of the player. A caman would also have a hook at the lower end, made by steaming and carefully curving the end of the stick. The hook portion of the caman was wedge-shaped so that it had two faces with which to hit the ball. Some hurling sticks terminated in metal-faced hooks, but shinty sticks have always been made solely of wood. According to legend, on the island of Uist, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, shinty camans were once made of dried stalks of seaweed, since the island was devoid of trees.

The essential object of the game of shinty was for each team to try to put the ball through their opponent’s goal, known as a hail. A hail was placed at each end of the field or pitch over which the teams played. Shinty players were expected to use their caman to hit the ball toward or into the hail, and they were free to use either face of the hooked end of the stick. However, unlike some other field games, they were not restricted to hitting the ball only while it was on the ground. Shinty players were allowed to hit the ball while it was in mid-air, but only if it was directly over their heads. The use of hands was not allowed, except for the goal-keeper, who was permitted to use his open palm to protect the hail. He was not allowed to catch the ball. Camans could be used to block or tackle players on the opposing team, but it was against the rules to bring their stick down on that of an opponent, a practice known as hacking. It was considered a foul to play the ball with the head, as is sometimes done in soccer. Such a play typically resulted in a free hit for the opposing team, not to mention that a hit on the head with the hard wooden shinty ball would have been particularly painful, assuming it did not completely incapacitate the player. For most games of shinty, the winner was determined by the team who got the ball into their opponent’s hail the highest number of times.

Today, there are strict regulations governing the size and layout of the field, or pitch, over which shinty is played. There are also rules for the number of players who can take the field for each team, and the time allotted to each game. Such was not the case during the Regency. Very often, teams would play on any open field that was available, usually with an agreement on the boundaries of the pitch and the locations of their hails before the game began. In modern games of shinty, the rules specify that the field must be between 140 to 170 yards long and 70 to 80 yards wide. Today’s rules allow for twelve players, including the goal-tender, but there were few restrictions on the number of players during the Regency. Teams might number as many as fifty players on each side for important games between large communities. Yet a Regency game might have been played with as few as six players on each side. Games of shinty played in the twenty-first century are comprised of two halves, of forty-five minutes each. During the Regency, the time allotted to any given game was at the discretion of the players of that specific game, and pauses or times out were also left up to the players in that particular game.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, shinty was played in many communities across the British Isles. In the seventeenth century, shinty had originally developed as a sport played between people in a single community. But by the Regency, though many games were still played between teams in a given town or village, there were also competitions between communities. Some were friendly rivalries between neighboring villages, but others could be rowdy, hard-fought battles for regional dominance. Games of shinty were traditionally played on important festival days and holidays. These festivals were often of importance to a specific town or village. However, across Britain, shinty was played in most places on New Year’s Day. In fact, New Year’s Day was considered to be the beginning of the shinty playing season across Britain, right through the end of the nineteenth century. Quite a few of the larger competitions between towns were traditionally played on New Year’s Day. Shinty was usually played during the winter months through the nineteenth century and was not played regularly during the rest of the year. It is believed this was because it was such an active and physically demanding game that the players actually welcomed the cold weather and many found it more taxing to play it during the warmer months.

There were no formally recorded rules for shinty until 1848, so during the Regency, each team or community set their own rules. Shinty or camanachd associations were not founded until the last decade of the nineteenth century, when the game began to be officially regulated across Britain. Before that, each community played the game as it had been traditionally played in that area for generations. Some games of shinty during the Regency were amiable games between friendly teams. But others sometimes became rowdy and boisterous matches between long-time rivals. Those games could descend into fights and other violence, if tempers ran high between players and/or onlookers. This violence could lead to severe injuries, since the players in the early nineteenth century wore no padding or other protective gear. Though shinty in the Regency was most often played by men, there are records which show that games were also sometimes played by women and even children. It is also clear that shinty in the Regency was a fairly egalitarian game. Not only was in played by both genders, young and old, it was also played by those who lived in rural or urban areas, and by people from nearly every income level.

Dear Regency Authors, might a game or two of shinty find a way into a future romance novel set during the Regency? Perhaps one or more characters are impeded in their New Year’s Day travel because there is a shinty game in progress on a field near a village which they need to cross. Or, could the hero be injured in a game of shinty in a remote village, to be taken in by a family with a beautiful young daughter? If a fight or some rowdy behaviour is needed while characters are attending a village fair, if the story is set during the winter months, a game of shinty might serve the purpose very well. Then again, perhaps the heroine is playing a friendly game of shinty when the villain attempts to abduct her. Will she be able to protect herself with a few well-placed blows from her shinty caman? Though shinty is not widely known today, it was known and played in many places during the Regency. This obscure but very active game has much potential for use in a story set during our favorite decade.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Shinty:   Game or Brawl?

  1. It’s called Bandy in the east of England, and was referred to as such by Shakespeare when in Romeo and Juliet “The Prince expressly hath forbidden bandying in the Verona streets”. Wiki mentions it being played at the 1814 Ice Fair. Hurley, Hockey and Ice Hockey as well as golf probably descend from it. So far as I could discover in my researches it was an Icelandic game brought by the Vikings, which would explain why it is found so widely and not confined to Ireland.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Based on my research, bandy is a kissing cousin of shinty, but it is not the same game. Bandy is played on ice while shinty is played on a field. The sources which I consulted said that hurley was a game originally played by the Celts on the Continent. But I do believe there are ties between the ancient Celts and the Vikings, so it would make sense both groups played similar games. In fact, I learned that similar stick and ball games were even played in Athens while Rome was still a scruffy little village.

      You are quite right that field hockey, ice hockey and even golf are believed to have been inspired by shinty and its cousins. All of the references which I consulted agree on that. I suspect that lacrosse may also have its origins in shinty-type games as well. Though I think it might be a bit of a stretch to include polo among their descendants.



      • I read one source which said that croquet and its development billiards/snooker/pool may also have had the same source but I wasn’t sure I was convinced. So far as I could determine, in the Saxon era at least, it was played on ice or grass depending on the time of year with no compromise to speak of in the rules

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Very interesting! Actually, I think your source might be right about billiards/snooker/pool. I learned during research into those games that they were originally played outdoors, on a grass field. They were moved indoors, onto tables, by the French, in the sixteenth century, so the upper classes could play without getting wet when it rained.

          I suppose all games played with sticks and a ball may well have an ancient common origin. It just seems to be something that comes naturally to many people.



          • I did know they were played outside but I just wondered if the source was reaching a bit, and if it was a case more of convergent evolution as it were. But I’m happy to keep an open mind about ancient common origins. Just also aware that Pelote and Pallone [a forerunner of tennis and still played in places in Italy in its medieval form, which came from Ancient Rome] sprang up on different continents but have enough similarities for a spurious connection to be made out of them. Archaeologist son, so well trained in avoiding leaps of faith without good reason.

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