Obituary: John Sloggie, crofter, caman maker and shinty legend

John Sloggie and his wife Mabel, with some of the camans they made.

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One of the best-known shinty personalities of the modern era and a major figure in the game, in terms of supplying camans, has died.

John Sloggie, a kenspeckle figure and maker and repairer of camans for more than 40 years, had been in hospital in Inverness for a short time and died on Sunday morning, August 30.

In the team sport of shinty, where community and heritage is everything, few individuals have made such a colossal impact on the game as John Edmund Sloggie and his equally well-known wife of 61 years, Mabel. Together, they more or less sustained the crucially important supply of camans from their croft base at Achadhluachradh near Invergarry, where they also worked a croft with sheep and cattle.

John was originally from Montrose, born in Dundee Royal Infirmary. He first trained as a turner/fitter in Arbroath before going to work with Glaxo in Montrose, where he married Mabel 61 years ago on June 20 1950.

He forsook dry land to take up a career at sea, serving as a second engineer in the Merchant Navy with the White Star line (1960-62).

From there, he took his first position as a stalker near Edinburgh before heading for the glens and bens of the Highlands working as a stalker/keeper in locations including Kinloch Rannoch, Braelangwell, Bonar Bridge/Ardgay, then Malardich in Glen Cannich before moving to Achadhluachrach near Invergarry where the family spent 46 years.

John would have been 82 in September.

It was while he was in Cannich the stick-making bug took hold, repairing the old spliced Macpherson sticks first of all, stripping them back and replacing the handles and whipping to restore them.

Serious caman-making began at Achadhluachrach when the couple took on the business previously run by Willie Munro of Dunoon in 1980, six years after their arrival there and he was still making them in his own inimitable style right up until the end, despite health issues in recent years.

The Sloggie contribution to the survival of the game is incalculable but when asked at a talk on shinty-making recently how many they thought they had produced over the years, the answer from John himself was ‘millions’. That may or may not have been the case, but it is a reasonable and not altogether fanciful measure of the enormity of their contribution to the game as a working couple.

Keith Loades, president of the Camanachd Association, shinty’s governing body, said: ‘John Sloggie was simply unique and with Mabel they formed a formidable friendship and partnership. Their contribution to the game together is beyond measure and John has made a remarkable contribution to the game, whilst at the same time looking after the croft and his shinty-playing family.

‘Without referees the game cannot exist. Without sticks we would not need referees, so John managed to encompass both roles with a singular sense of purpose which marks him out as one of the major figures in our sport in the modern era. This is a sad day for the family and for the wider shinty community and our thoughts are with the extended family, Mabel in particular.’

Shinty stick making was recently officially designated an endangered craft. Thankfully, videos exist of John in full flow in his workshop. The Art of the Caman Maker is a notable example. In the film, John is seen making the sticks, hand crafting them to all manner of players’ idiosyncrasies, stretching the laws of the game on what was acceptable to the limit. John was one of very few people who could be counted on to be carrying the famous measuring ring just to check the legality or otherwise of camans.

He was also well-known in the middle of the field and at meetings. He refereed the sport’s top occasion, the Camanachd Cup Final, in Glasgow in 2001. He had also officiated at most of the other great games and occasions, including a lively recreation of a famous match in Badenoch in the late 19th century, resplendent in period costume.

Not as well-known, perhaps, is the way in which the caman couple travelled  far and wide at their own expense to places including London where he was a popular figure with the Camanachd Club there in its more adventurous years in the mid 1980s.

John was made a Member of Honour of the Camanachd Association in 2016, when Mabel should surely have been accorded that honour.

He was a past president of the Camanachd Referees Association and took more than a passing interest in the administration of the game, in particular the rules of play and their management.  He was also a significant historian of the game and its machinations.

He was a man of strong opinions with a redoubtable recall of incidents and events throughout his own career and those of the players and fans who often took issue with him. He had his own style in command of a game and his own particular sense of humour often saw him come out on the better end of verbal jousts, despite the odds being apparently stacked against him. More often than not, he had the final word.

One other significant contribution made to shinty by John and Mabel was the preparation of silver mounted and presentation camans for the Camanachd Association and many other bodies and competitions associated with the game over many years.

President of the Camanachd Referees Association Donald Stewart said: ‘I have rarely met a more enigmatic, colourful, quick-witted character than John. He had a story about every aspect of life, especially about shinty, to which he devoted countless years of his life. I will miss our long conversations about the matches we had seen on a Saturday, separately or together with Mabel, sharing our opinions, sometimes agreeing to disagree, about how to interpret the rules and improve the sport. If shinty had a Hall of Fame, which it most certainly should, John Sloggie would be a highly prominent and early occupant.’

John Sloggie leaves his wife Mabel, sons Matthew, Eddie, Peter and Mark – all of whom were shinty players – 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements, in accordance with current practices, will be published in due course.

The thoughts of the shinty community far and wide are with Mabel and the extended family.