The Sport of the Gael 80 years of the BBC and the Bught

Hugh MacPhee, a senior BBC Scotland figure in the 1930s, said that ‘broadcasting mingles with the air of the glens.’ MacPhee was from Ballachulish, an Argyll village with a significant shinty history as Camanachd Cup winners and champions of Scotland’s iconic game at the turn of the 20th century. Hugh MacPhee is arguably the single most important figure in ensuring that shinty and the BBC have been inextricably linked for nearly 90 years, joining two other sports, cricket and tennis, which celebrated significant anniversaries this year: the ninetieth anniversary of live cricket coverage, and of radio coverage from Wimbledon; the eightieth year of TV coverage from the same venue; and the fiftieth anniversary of colour TV transmissions.

The Sport of the Gael 80 years of the BBC and the Bught Photo Gallery

The 2017 Tulloch Homes Camanachd Cup Final marked 80 years of live BBC radio transmissions from shinty’s showpiece game, or big day – Là mòr na camanachd in Gaelic. That event, which was historic in broadcasting terms, also saw the opening of the ‘new’ stand at the Bught Park in Inverness – on land released by Inverness farmer William McBean in the 1920s for the sport of shinty. The 1937 match between Newtonmore and Oban Celtic at the Bught Park was also the first shinty match where teams used numbers on players’ backs to help the commentators identify them. The game in Inverness ended in a draw and the replay eventually concluded in controversy amid allegations of assault, police intervention and a protest by Newtonmore, which was refused.

The trophy went to Celtic for the first time. Research into the wider context of the game, and in particular its broadcasting significance, has unearthed a fascinating story involving a man whose family ties were with Skye and Uist and who featured in significant other events such as the 1924 shinty/hurling international between Scotland and Ireland held at Parkhead. Gaelic broadcasting BBC Scotland had begun broadcasting in Gaelic in 1923 from Aberdeen. At this point, in the mid1920s, the lead commentator on the first ever live radio coverage in 1937, Reverend Roderick MacSwan Boyd, was to be found playing shinty in Glasgow. In his youth he had played with some distinction alongside his brothers in Portree for Skye and Glasgow University.

Boyd’s father, Alexander, was from Hogharry on North Uist, which would have been at the time a shintyplaying area. He eventually became Inspector of Police in Portree on Skye from 1889 to 1913. Like many others, Roderick left the island to go to Glasgow, where he found a vibrant Highland and Gaelic scene, populated by many of his island friends and others with whom he would have been familiar. He was nineteen when he saw his first train; the same age when he experienced his first ice-cream. Roderick went to Glasgow University where he enrolled as a student of English and Latin, eventually with a view to becoming a minister, a vocation which he was not to achieve until well into the next decade, when he combined his ministerial duties with broadcasting in the ground-breaking transmission of 1937. In the 1920s the Glasgow Skye Association and its accompanying shinty team were major players in the Glasgow social scene.

Boyd’s skill with the caman led to his selection for a Scottish select which took on an Irish team at Parkhead in Glasgow in a game famously captured on film and started by one Peggy O’Neil. Unfortunately for Boyd, however, post-1921 Ireland was deemed ‘too dangerous’ by his mother and he was not allowed to travel for the return leg, which was part of the famous Tailteann Games held in Dublin in 1924 as the newly-formed Irish state tried to find its feet and stamp its sporting credentials on an unsuspecting world. Amongst the many acquaintances Roderick Boyd had in Glasgow was one Peter M Macleod (a fellow Skye resident, although born in Barra) who himself became an influential figure in the broadcasting and shinty circles of the time. He was to be found as President of the Glasgow University Athletic Club in 1925-26 and beginning to appear on the BBC giving ‘talks’ on shinty and ‘eyewitness accounts’ (live post-match reports) of games like the 1928 Celtic Society Cup Final and subsequently in 1932 from a Cup Final played at Westerlands.

The following year MacLeod, through the Camanachd Association, raised the question of having shinty results broadcast on radio along with other sports news on Saturday mornings. It was agreed that if it was possible, arrangements would be made to have the results broadcast. Round about this time there was also considerable angst amongst the shinty authorities about the BBC’s performance in relation to the iconic game. The Association’s minutes record: ‘The name Boleskine, which caused the BBC announcer so much trouble, will no longer cause him anxiety as the name is gone, but Foyers, which we can hardly call a new name, takes its place.’ The same meeting heard a letter read requesting the Association to take steps to have a broadcast or ‘eyewitness account’ of the Camanachd Cup nal arranged. The Secretary was instructed to write to the BBC with a request for a ten-minute account of the nal. Roderick MacSwan Boyd moved to Aberdeen to resume his un nished theological efforts and ended up playing shinty for Aberdeen University – on one notable occasion scoring spectacularly against his former university in a Littlejohn cup match. It was when he had become a minister in Easter Ross that he was taken on board by Hugh MacPhee, brother of the noted singer James C. MacPhee, who had in August 1935 joined the BBC as ‘Gaelic Assistant’.

Within a year, the BBC had established a Gaelic department with MacPhee at the helm. The sport of the Gael In 1938 Scotland on the Air was published, compiled and edited by George Burnett, Public Relations Officer, at the BBC. That book has a chapter by Hugh MacPhee called Bu mhath leam a ràdh (‘I would like to say’) which includes the following: Now, after long years during which the moss has softened the tragic face of ruin, broadcasting mingles with the air of the glens. The aerial of Torr Dearg is the token of a cultural force that has stirred the Gàidhealtachd. Gaelic is being brought to the Gael and the Gael is showing himself to the world. And one of the ways MacPhee proceeded to do this was through the medium of shinty broadcasts, and not just the live commentaries which started in 1937 (when MacPhee himself joined Roderick Boyd and Kenneth Murray as the commentary team), 1938 and 1939. In that last year, with war looming and Reverend Boyd doing the radio mid-week service in Gaelic, MacPhee took major steps to highlight the place he saw shinty having in the developing Scotland and its broadcasting output.

He wrote for transmission in 1939 subsequently repeated in 1947, the programme Shinty. Sport of the Gael: From earliest times to present day, along with R. F. Dunnett. Among those taking part in the dramatised history of shinty were the legendary John C. Dallas from Kingussie, Ronald MacColl and William Paterson, President of the Camanachd Association. The programme was produced by Peter Thomson. The description from the Radio Times bears reproduction: Shinty, the national team game of Scotland, still played throughout the Highlands and by Highlanders who live in the Lowlands, has a history and tradition that puts most present-day pastimes to shame. There are records of the game being played more than 2,000 years ago. ExProvost Dallas of Kingussie and Ronald MacColl of Glencoe will be among the players and legislators of the game who will come to the microphone to recall interesting memories of shinty in the old days. The programme was repeated, in updated form, on Thursday 3 April 1947 on the Scottish Home Service, previewing the Camanachd Cup  nal at Moss eld Park between Lochfyneside and Newtonmore.

Amongst those taking part were some of the most notable Gaels and shinty folk of the time: John M Bannerman, Edith Caunce, Joan Fitzpatrick, Finlay J. MacDonald, Tom Smith, Eric Wightman, ex-provost John Dallas of Kingussie, ex-provost Dugald MacD Skinner of Oban and William Paterson. From then on, the BBC, largely through the impetus created by Hugh MacPhee, went on to be a significant supporter of shinty on radio and then, in uentially, on television. Reverend Roderick MacSwan Boyd went on to distinguish himself in the ministry in a number of areas from Alness to Brora, Kintore, Argyll and Edinburgh. MacPhee eventually became president of An Comann Gàidhealach and chieftain of the Glasgow Celtic Society. Over the intervening years, some of the biggest names in sports broadcasting have been involved in shinty coverage, including some of the most notable commentators such as David Francey, Alister Alexander, Bill Johnstone and David Begg.

The BBC has been a strong and valued voice for shinty since its first live radio broadcast in 1937. Before the arrival of the internet and social media, the BBC provided the only audio and visual links across the globe serving both the local and exiled shinty families. In more recent years, the BBC expertise in outside broadcast has been of great benefit in not just reporting on games but in promoting shinty as a fast, exciting, accessible modern sport. Few involved in that historic 1937 Camanachd Cuponal at the Bught Park could have foreseen that in 2017, 80 years later, the BBC would cover the game between Lovat and Newtonmore live from Bught Park on BBC2 Scotland television, on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal in Gaelic and on BBC Scotland Radio. With thanks to Rachel Wallace, Edinburgh, daughter of Reverend Boyd, for help with information and images. Dr Hugh D MacLennan, Global Academy of Sport, University of Edinburgh; Sports Writer in Residence, National Library of Scotland.

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