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Festive season activities are supported by local benefactors

We were fortunate in Argyll, or at least in Morvern anyway, to have had fine weather on New Year’s day.

The almost unbroken sunshine and a light northerly breeze brought out a sprinkling of afternoon walkers and ramblers, as well as those, of course, who had deer, cattle and sheep to feed long after the bells and the ships’ horns in Oban harbour had fallen silent.

In bygone days, shinty matches were the order of the day and took place on January 1, or 12 days later on what was called ‘The Old New Year’, which conformed to the old-style calendar. Old New Year’s day is still talked about by an older generation but very seldom celebrated. ‘Ag iomain bhall air La Callain, C’ait’ eil coimeas ris ’s an Eorpa’ – playing shinty on New Year’s day, where is its like in the whole of Europe? – used to be common saying among the Gaelic speakers of the district.

In Morvern, New Year day shinty matches were played at Acharn and Mungosdail. Those at Acharn took place in a field called ‘Dail na Comair’ near the river. Players came from the Black and White Glens, Arienas, Achadha na Gamhna, Inniemore and Inniebeg, and refreshments were taken after every goal.

Bagpipes were always in evidence and a dance usually took place in the field afterwards for the games were patronised by women, young and old.

On January 16, 1874, two teams of 30 men on each side played for three-and-a-half hours in the Acharn field and were reported afterwards to have been ‘well fortified by John Barleycorn’, provided by Thomas Valentine Smith, the generous proprietor of Ardtornish Estate, who also donated prize money to the winning teams. Considering most of these places today are covered in gloomy Sitka spruce trees or are lying empty and wasted, it is difficult to believe they were once capable of producing so many active, able-bodied men.

In January 1906, several shinty teams from Buna­vullin, Glasdrum, Drimnin and Killundine on the Sound of Mull,  met at 11 in the morning in a field close to Mungosdail House to battle it out. Mr Alex Cameron and Mr Alex Ferguson, Glenmorvern, acted as captains. At half-time there were no goals until, in the second half, Charles Urmston, the popular laird of Glenmorvern Estate, scored twice.

Pipe music and refreshments on a grand scale were supplied by Mr Urmston during the game and at a dance held for players and spectators in a nearby barn that night.

By 1918, New Year shinty matches were over with, the local Oban Times correspondent blaming ‘new ideas’, although war casualties, from which the parish has never recovered, must have been a contributing factor.

In Oban on Old New Year’s day in 1863, the 11th Mid Lorn Rifle Volunteers held a gala day. Although the weather was atrocious, most of its members turned out and fell in at the Old Barracks under the command of Captain Archibald Campbell, Lieutenant John Forbes and Ensign Francis Yeoman. With two pipers of the 78th Highlanders in the lead, the assembled company set off for Ganavan Bay for some target practice. Despite strong wind and driving rain, the accuracy of the riflemen at 300 yards was described as ‘admirable’ and no less impressive at 700 yards. By the time every man had fired seven rounds each the light was beginning to fail so the Volunteers with their officers and pipers marched back to Oban but not before halting on the way to enjoy a dram with Mr Peter Robertson, the genial laird of Pennyfuir.

The McCaig family, who gave so much to Oban over the years, were also supporters of the Volunteers. Today their name is principally known for commissioning McCaig’s Tower, which dominates the town. There used to be, and perhaps still is, a Catherine McCaig Trust, which must have been of great benefit to local folk before the advent of the welfare state.

According to the terms of Catherine McCaig’s will, the trustees were to consist of nine people representing the universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Argyllshire Education Committee and Oban Town Council, the Church of Scotland, An Comunn Gaidhealach and others.

The governors were to take a piece of ground in front of the Volunteer Hall, Breadalbane Street, lay it out as an open space and put a statue on it of Major Duncan McCaig, a brother of Catherine McCaig. They also had to supplement the annual stipend of the minister of the United Free Church (Continuing) in the Island of Lismore and pay the Oban Town Council a sum of money to buy coal for the ‘deserving poor people’ of Oban.

A museum, hall and library was to be built and maintained in Breadalbane Street, behind the statue, and called the McCaig Memorial Institute.

Bursary competitions were open to Protestant students and a £200, one-year scholarship in Gaelic, was to be available to Masters of Art studying at any Scottish university which supported the language. Grants were also available for helping to produce Gaelic books.

Iain Thornber
iain.thornber@btinternet.com