The Evolution of the Shinty Ball

The Evolution of the Shinty Ball.

In the early days of Shinty players made their own camans and balls from whatever materials were locally available. Traditionally balls were carved from wood, preferably a knot, as anyone struck by one would painfully realise. Other materials were also used – from part of a sheep’s vertebrae to the bung of a barrel to fir cones. In the islands a lump of peat was often used and by the 1830s the Badenoch area preferred a ball made from twisted horsehair.

Wooden Balls

In December 1849, a game between Strathglass and the men of the low ground of the Aird was played near Beaufort Castle, the game was forty men aside, the best of three games with Strathglass eventual winners. The balls for each game were specially made of India Rubber. 

India Rubber is one name for the natural rubber that comes from the sap of certain trees. Rubber trees that grow in South America and India produce the majority of India Rubber.

Shinty matches in the 1880s began to show the differences in the balls used, a match in 1889 against Brae Lochaber was the first time a team from Badenoch saw a leather ball in use. It was very different from their horsehair ball. “Our ball, before then, was a very heavy one made with a big cork in the heart, and horsehair made into a thick twine stitched round it. It would be about twice the diameter of the leather ball and about three times heavier.”

Cork and Twine Ball

After the war limbless soldiers were employed in the manufacture of shinty balls, which had doubled in price from 2s 6d in pre war days to 5s. During the first season after the war, the quality of the balls was held responsible for the lack of long hitting admired in the early days. In wet conditions the leather ball became too heavy to drive any distance and slowed down play. 

Major Roberts, who served in the Cameron Highlanders, did much for the game during this period. One of his services was the designing of a new type ball with a watertight rubber covering between the cork and worsted core and the outer covering of leather. This type of ball, which was impervious to damp, was tested and found most satisfactory. A patent was granted in 1920 for sixteen years and sole rights were secured by John Macpherson, The Sporting Stores, Inverness. 

Major Roberts Patented Ball

A description from an army booklet titled ‘Small side team games’ issued by the army control board somewhere between 1918 – 1940 describes the shinty ball as – “Hard rubber, slightly smaller than a hockey ball.”

Here we have a more descriptive account from The Schools Camanachd Association 1937, describing shinty balls as, “worsted ball – cork or paper core – wool from old socks or stockings sewed with string. Leather-covered ball-cork core-covered with worsted and sewn with string, covered with leather and sewn with resined linen strings.  Circumference of ball approximately 7½ ins. to 8 ins.  When an 8 in. ball, the cork core must be larger than that used in the 7½ in. ball.  Weight not to be over 2¾ ounces. When the ball is wet it should be left to dry before being played with again. To preserve the cover it is advisable to rub in dubbin or roast fat or good shoe polish.”

Again in a book from India titled ‘Games and sports in the services in India’ from 1945, it describes  the ball as – “Hard rubber, slightly smaller than a hockey ball.”

The first description I could find from the Camanachd Association was from the ‘Rules Of Play’ 1948 – 1949. “The ball to be played with shall consist of cork and worsted, with a covering of leather, and shall measure 7½ inches to 8 inches in circumference, and be of a weight of from 2½ to 3½ ounces.” (70g – 99g)

Now with rules and regulations coming into play the manufacture of shinty balls became a cottage industry. Most villages had a shoemaker who would make shinty balls with off cuts of leather. The most famous of them all was John MacKellar. John learned the craft of ball making and shoe making from his uncle. His main income came from hand producing made to measure footwear for the rich and famous. Shoe repairs and shinty ball making were side lines. It was in the 1960s that John MacKellar’s ‘Tighnabruaich ball’ came into its own. Its clear superiority over anything else on the market became quickly apparent and orders started to flow in.

A questionnaire was carried out in the 1979 Shinty Yearbook and the findings were as follows. “The only good quality ball is a Mackellar of Tighnabruaich one. Yet many clubs – particularly in the north, of course – cannot get hold of them.  Only 5 of our eighteen respondents use Tighnabruaich balls; the rest use the Irish-made ‘All-Star’ variety, simply because it is all they can get.  As far as quality is concerned it certainly has its critics.  It loses its whiteness too quickly and the resulting grey ball is difficult for spectators (and ‘keepers!) to follow; it becomes heavy and sponge-like after fifteen to twenty minutes play;  it frustrates young players’ attempts to master the skills of the game.”

The Macpherson Sporting Stores closed its doors in 1976 and with the passing of Mr Mackellar in the 1980’s shinty ball supply became solely reliant on imports. The quality of the balls quickly deteriorated, soon returning to that of post war, again becoming very heavy, taking on water and going out of shape. On a wet day they would not last the full 90 mins in a shinty game and it was typical to use as many as 5/6 balls per game; this would remain the same for the next 40 plus years.

As a player and now the main manufacturer to shinty I took it upon myself to see if any improvements could be made to improve the quality and standard of the shinty ball. So in the 2015/16 season I started to research the balls currently in circulation to see if there were any improvements that could be made. At the time all I had to work on was the ball currently in circulation and the current byelaw which stated…

“The ball shall be spherical – the interior shall be cork and worsted and the outer cover shall be of leather or other approved material. The circumference of the ball shall not be more than 8 inches (20cms) and not less than 7½ inches (19cms). The weight of the ball, at the start of the game shall be not more than 3 ounces (85gms) nor less than 2½ ounces (70gms). The ball shall not be changed during the game unless authorised by the Referee.”

Looking back, the only rule changes that had been made in the last 70 plus years were the reduction in weight from 70g-99g to 70g-85g and the change to the outer cover “shall be of leather or ‘other’ approved material”. So I set out 4 objectives I wanted to achieve. 1- The ball should always hold its shape. 2- The ball should not become waterlogged. 3- The ball should last longer than the 90 mins for a game of shinty. 4- This should stop clubs going through so many balls in a season in turn saving money.

I started to test the shinty balls currently being used first by weighing them, then by cutting the balls open and taking notes of each. A simple test was also carried out by submerging the balls in water for 8 hours, the balls were weighed before and after, most of the balls tested started at around 84g and after 8 hours submerged in water ended up over 100g, some balls taking on as much as 20g of water, well above the 70g-85g stated in byelaw 1.3. None of the balls tested were made from real leather but all from a synthetic leather, there are three grades of synthetic leather and all but one was made using the cheapest grade. 

From my observation water was being drawn in through the outer skin, quickly becoming waterlogged and heavy, the worsted ‘string’ was not tightly wound but more strand-like. The cork seemed to be pressed together and not carved from a block, causing the inner core to turn to mush and quickly go out of shape.

So the first thing I set out to do was have our balls made in leather, the balls were noticeably different in appearance and durability although they lasted longer the balls still took on water. I then set out to try and waterproof the inner core, at first wrapping a thin bag round the inner core then having the inner core dipped in glue both successful to a certain degree but not completely solving the problem.  

It was by working back and fore with our manufacturer I became aware of a new material that could be used in this process, so the next step was to have the inner core made from 100% waterproof rubber like material, meaning the inner core is a perfect sphere, will not absorb any water and will not go out of shape. The inner core would then be wrapped in leather as standard, producing a ball to a very high standard in design, looks and durability. 

We then tested the ball the same as before, this time submerged for 24hrs, starting at 71g the ball only took on 5g of water weighing 76g well within the current byelaws. Water did eventually soak in through the seams but was absorbed in the leather and did not penetrate the inner core.  

I wrote to the Camanachd Association in September 2016 with my findings asking if I could present to them a new prototype PRO ball with a proposal that the ball became an official ball to be used in cup and league competitions. Unfortunately I received an email 11 weeks later stating they had forgotten to circulate my email and in this time had signed an agreement with their kit supplier partners for much the same deal as I had proposed. This was a massive blow and a setback to the development of the ball, with all sorts of hurdles thrown in the way. The biggest was a change to the byelaw which now states.  “The ball shall be spherical – the interior shall be cork and worsted or other approved material.”  It was not until December 2017 the Camanachd Association finally approved the Tanera PRO ball for use in all competitions. 

I wanted to now look at the design and appearance of the ball, so I began looking at football designs, and in doing so I came across an article on tennis balls. For nearly a century, tennis balls were white or black. but the introduction of colour television meant it was harder for viewers to pick up the flight of the white ball. It was actually the great Sir David Attenborough who was behind the change to optic yellow in 1972 but it took Wimbledon another 14 years before they finally saw the light. Optical studies have concluded that this move away from tradition enhances the balls visibility to players, officials and particularly spectators. Since then other sports have followed suit like baseball, football, volleyball, hockey and golf.

Baseball, football, volleyball, hockey and golf balls.

Before lockdown we had our optic PRO shinty balls ready to launch, I have since added luminous orange dots to give contrast both in the air and on the ground. The PRO ball is now available in 4 different colours to suit the ever changing seasons we get here in Scotland. I would like to develop the ball further, it would be very easy to add a microchip to the ball which would then link up to an app on a smart device for data collection, this could be used as a training aid or for collecting stats in a game. The next step is to have the balls assembled back here in Scotland and to bring the craft home for the first time in decades, something I hope to achieve later this year.

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2 Comments

  1. Very informative article, Great credit to Tanera Camans for the contiued dedication to the sport.

    Wishing you all the very best.

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