Sunday, 6 August 2017

Skye Shinty Camp 2017

What do you get when you mix an unfit 45 year old with a couple of 28 year olds, two 17 year olds, 3 willing cooks and 17 kids?  Skye Shinty Camp 2017!  Nearly 48 hours on I feel like I've been hit with a large bus but overall I am so thankful to the Lord for sustaining us and keeping the kids safe over the last week. Running any camp is difficult but starting a camp from scratch is really tough.

Over three years ago I had the idea for a shinty camp.  Although I've had a lifelong interest in shinty, I haven't played much in my adult life.  I played a little with Edinburgh University and then Edinburgh and East Lothian but until I got involved with Camanachd Dhun Eideann about 8-9 years ago I hadn't played for most of my life. I now coach kids at least once a week and have taken my Foundation and Level 1 Camanachd Association Coaching Awards. I see shinty as hugely positive influence as it teaches kids (particularly boys) to channel their aggression, play together as a team, keep fit and overall, the shinty world is a wonderful community.  

A large part of my drift from shinty as a teenager was that I could never reconcile shinty with my love for the Lord Jesus Christ.  Growing up in Oban, shinty was fairly cliquey.  I loved playing it at school but after that I found shinty to be generally brutal and violent.  It was also always associated with heavy drinking. I've been to lower league matches fairly recently where vodka and whiskey were being passed round the team within minutes of the end of the game. After I professed faith around 1986 I felt that I couldn't in all conscience be involved in shinty and live a consistent Christian life. Like thousands of others I drifted away from shinty and became more involved in football.  But there is something about shinty that kept drawing me back.  One of the many reasons is that when my sister died in 1980, and my family went through years of grief, I remember my aunties taking me to shinty training.  During that bleak time, one of the things that kept me going was swinging a caman at shinty training.  It was a small slice of normality at a confusing and tragic time.

Shinty is of course largely played in the Highlands and some of my best memories of the last few years has been travelling to beautiful locations with my sons Davie and Calum to see a cup final. What could be better than an overnight at my cousins in Fort William followed by a great game in the most beautiful part of the world? What if I could combine my love for shinty, my love for the Highlands and my passion for the gospel in a camp? What if shinty could be seen in a more positive light, as a way for young people to keep fit, learn team work, have fun, develop their skills and hear the good news of the gospel?  Late in 2016 the Free Church Youth Committee gave the green light and the shinty camp was finally born.

During a trip to Portree in February this year my wife and I visited The Elgin Residence as a potential location for the camp.  It was perfect. After a huge refurbishment last year it has excellent facilities and we knew immediately it was the place for the shinty camp.  As well as excellent accommodation I wanted two other things: a supportive local congregation and a supportive local shinty club.  I visited Donnie and Debbie Macdonald at Portree Free Church in February and also met with John Angus Gilles from Skye Camanachd.  Both were delighted to offer their support.  All we needed now was a team of leaders and some campers!

My team came together very naturally.  I had been talking to Rev Sean Ankers and Calum Macrae for some time about the camp and both are enthusiastic shinty players.  Given that they are both 17 years younger than me they were slightly more in touch with the kids than I was. Calum in particular 'talks teenager' and can converse about an X-Box for longer than 5 seconds which is about my limit!  

My two Junior Leaders couldn't have been better.  I hadn't met Alexander Macleod since he was a baby.  I was very fond of his father Kenny 'Nostie' Macleod and I can't imagine what it must have been like for Alexander to lose his father to cancer when he was only 12.  All I can say is that Kenny would be immensely proud of Alexander - the kids thought he was wonderful. He is also a very gifted shinty player and has been very involved with Caithness Shinty Club since it was established in 2014.  My other Junior Leader was my own son James.  I am very biased but James is a wonderful young man. After 5 year in the Army Cadets he is mature beyond his years and with 4 younger brothers he is great with kids. Like his mother, he has a great attitude to serving others and is a hero to his two youngest brothers.  His shinty style is unorthodox to say the least but he was a great addition to my team.   

When I ran the All Age Holiday for 6 years, I always believed that the secret to a great camp/holiday is quality food.  If you get the basics right, almost everything takes care of itself. Camps tend to take on a life of their own as relationships form, events happen that were never planned and lasting memories are made. My own wife came along to do the cooking and I don't think we have ever been happier as we served the kids together in a Christian environment. Her quiet service and dedication are a constant rebuke to me.  She never grumbles and always goes above and beyond what I ask.  As well as cooking she had to administer numerous medications and look after our 2 young youngest children.  She was ably assisted by my sister in law Annis Maciver. There was never a morning when I didn't come down and find Annis in the kitchen preparing breakfast and she was always up late mopping floor and getting ready for the next day.  She gave up a week of her holiday and was away from her four kids for a whole week.  Words can't express my gratitude to her and Kirsteen for their quiet dedication.  They were ably assisted by Rona Macrae who visited for part of the week. The food was quite simply stunning with each day bringing a new level of quality. One camper from Dundee did his best to hoover up the left overs but there wasn't much left over.

Overall the week seemed to go well.  Mornings (until 10) were spent doing chores and rooms with a wide range of different results.  Some campers lack of personal responsibility was truly astounding. Some appeared to be genuinely shocked at being asked to do anything and seemed to live with the delusion that the leaders were being paid to be at camp and serve them in every way.  In the 20 years since I have done a youth camp I didn't appreciate the huge changes that have taken place.  Many kids today see themselves as completely autonomous and even when an adult asks them to do something they still seem to think they are under no obligation and care little about any consequences.  While it only applied to a small minority of children, it did strike me that many kids are growing up in a world where everything is being handed to them on a plate and have little sense of struggle.  When I was a camper at camps 30 years ago, when a leader raised his voice, you stopped talking and paid attention.  So many young people today simply don't recognise adult authority as something to be taken seriously.  As a social worker for 22 years I believe wholeheartedly in children's rights and have seen so many cases when kids have been neglected and abused, but I do wonder at times if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  

Mornings and afternoons were spent doing various drills and exercises.  There was a huge variety of shinty skills at the camp but it was great to see kids growing in confidence during the week.  Katie Drain, the Camanachd Association Shinty Development Officer for the North, came on Wednesday and it was good to see some new drills.  Throughout the week 4 teams of 5 players battled it out for supremacy: Kyles, Kingussie, Newtonmore and Oban Camanachd.  There were 18 games of 30 minutes each including various other big matches with all leaders and campers.  Most kids probably had an average of 5 hours of shinty per day and played at least 15 matches. Towards the end of the week it was hard not fall asleep in your corn flakes.  We were even able to watch the English Camanachd Association play 'Scotland' on Wednesday night.  The campers became big fans of 'Baffi' who was by for the fastest of England's finest.

I tried to break the week up by 2 visits to White Wave based in Staffin.  The 'camp song' was 'Caman Man' by Gary Innes and the campers belted it out as we drove everywhere.  I was looking forward to driving round the beautiful Isle of Skye but Tuesdays drive to Staffin via Uig was nothing short of traumatic. Trying to drive a 17 seater minibus on Skye roads was both stressful and at times verged on the farcical.  Trying to fit several camper vans in a passing place is no joke!  In the course of one short journey I met 5 large buses all screaming along a road designed for light car use.  The Isle of Skye is simply not designed for the number of tourists currently visiting.  On Wednesday there was a cruise ship in Portree and the town was crazy!  When we went to Kiltrock on Thursday for canoeing, a viewing point designed for perhaps 10-15 cars was besieged with 100's of tourists to the point where it was difficult to enter and exit.  Despite these challenges all the campers had a great time. Some had contact with water for the first time in several days and the leaders were mightily relieved that certain feet were smelling sweeter in the journey back!!

Of course the camp was organised with the primary purpose of introducing young people to the gospel.  About half the campers had no live church background.  Several came from challenging situations which is what I believe camps are all about. On Sunday we attended Portree Free Church both morning and evening and the preacher and congregation were great with the campers.  We can't thank them enough for all their kindness (and home baking).  I was poorly prepared for communicating the Bible to kids who literally knew nothing about the Bible and I believe, on reflection, I pitched my morning talks too high.  Evangelising a post Christian and post truth generation is challenging and something I need more help to do.  I was originally going to speak on 'Proverbs: Wisdom for Life' but became increasingly drawn to the book of Jonah with its story about running from God.  I covered the story under the headings of rebellion, repentance, recovery and rage.  I personally enjoyed the preparation and understood Jonah chapter 4 in a whole new way after reading Warren Wiersbe's commentary. Sean did an excellent job of introducing the campers to the gospel of Mark in the evenings with 'Encounters with Jesus'.  Concentration levels today are short, but Sean did well to keep their attention.  We saw some real fruit in the evening discussion groups. Many of the kids opened up about tough situations and we encouraged them to ask any questions they had about the Christian faith.  I would definitely use more small groups, with structured interactive material in future years.  Seventeen very tired kids in a meeting for 30 minutes can be a recipe for disaster!

The last night of the camp was great.  Portree Free Church organised a wonderful barbecue and all local parents were invited for the prize giving.  Kyles won the league led by a certain David Murray. A local lad, part of the Gillpin shinty dynasty, won best player of the camp. Overall there were 5 awards including a Fitness Award, Most Improved Player, Fair Play and Team Player Award. Our two girls, one from Lewis and one from Skye both got awards. Everyone got an engraved medal and attitude, fitness and skill were rewarded.  It was also a chance for me to pay tribute to my fantastic team of leaders and cooks.

Leading a camp is intense.  It is probably the most draining and intense experience I have had in many years.  It is relentless.  Every minute you are making decisions that that affect the lives of other peoples children which is a huge responsibility.  I got some decisions wrong and have learnt a lot. Even driving the minibus is a big responsibility.  One night the fire alarm went off at 10:30 pm.  I went running around the building checking everyone was out and fearing the worst.  When we got outside everyone was fine and we discovered that one of the kids had emptied an aerosol into his 'very smelly room'. Needless to say there were some rather stale armpits for the rest of the week after all aerosols were confiscated!  Looking back it was quite amusing but at the time it was very stressful.  During the last night an alarm went off in a nearby building and I literally jumped out of my bed to the bedroom door!  

In the last 20 years our society has gone through a huge change.  Many young people aren't even within touching distance of Biblical truth and have no anchor when it come to morality.  Some genuinely looked confused when we spoke about honesty, self sacrifice and denial.  During the first night when Sean announced the Psalm one boy turned to me and said 'what are Psalms?'  I said 'they are songs about God written by King David.'  He looked puzzled and then asked 'who was King David?' Without thinking I said: 'the one who killed Goliath with a stone and sling.'  He shrugged his shoulders in continuing bewilderment. A boy on the cusp of high school from the Highlands of Scotland had literally never opened a Bible or heard a single Bible story.  This, of course, is why Free Church camps are absolutely critical.  There is a generation of boys and girls growing up without a shred of Biblical knowledge and who have never heard of the incredible love of Jesus for sinners.  

I, for one, was not prepared for what I experienced at camp.  Despite my own work I feel I so often live in a Christian bubble.  Scotland desperately needs the gospel and I was privileged to be part of the first Free Church Shinty Camp.  We need to use every Biblical means possible to reverse the trend and bring the good news of Jesus to young people in Scotland.  Yes I'm tired but next year is provisionally booked. The work of reaching kids with the gospel is too important to not use this great opportunity again.   


  1. A great story so thanks for sharing and for all of your efforts to provide such wonderful experiences to so many. All in all, this sounds like an amazing an experience for all concerned. I have fond memories of the Elgin hostel and its environs. Thus would have been an ideal venue for you and I'm so pleased to see it worked out so favourably.

    1. Thanks Donald. About 20% of the camp were (or will soon be) Gillespie pupils. My own sons Calum and David are developing into good players. Skye is beautiful but very, very overcrowded.