I’ve been looking forward to doing a blog about football in the Hebrides. Since I met the Gaelic-speaking lassie who was to become my wife, I’ve calculated that I’ve spent about 2 years of my life visiting there. If you’ve never seen the fantastic scenery in the islands then check out my homepage johnblair.co.uk for some nice wee landscapes.
Travelling about these islands you occasionally get a wee surprise when you stumble across a rain-washed rectangle of emerald turf shining amongst the brown moorland. Over the years I’ve got to know all the places where football is played in Lewis and Harris and visited them many times through gales, rain, warm evening summer sunshine, and, yes, midges. Occasionally you get a wet day which dries up towards the evening and you get a nice setup for a game. Then the midges come out of the grass and make life intolerable. If you’re lucky you’re at Point or Harris or somewhere you can watch the game from your car. Or maybe you’re immune to these wee biting buggers.
Football in these islands is played in summer and is amateur, though the clubs have a great tradition. They take great pride in their setups and the facilities bear comparison with many Junior clubs on the mainland. The pitches are usually of a high standard. Cup Finals are always played at Goathill Park in Stornoway which is also the home of Athletic (Aths) and United. The map below shows the location of the 9 clubs currently playing in the Lewis and Harris League.
Previously there were also Stornoway Rovers who folded in the 1990s, Tong FC on the North side of Broad Bay, Shawbost FC, and Uig, who would be my local team if they still existed. They played at the machair in Ardroil, and were champions in 1978, and the goalposts were still there until a few years ago. Machair is a wonderful fertile grassy plain by the sea, amongst the dunes created by shell sand.
I managed to find a photo of the Uig team of the early 1930s:
My local team now would be Carloway although it entails a 28-mile drive, passing the standing stones of Calanais (Callanish) on the way. Na Gormaich (the blues) were founded in 1933 and play at Cnoc a’Choilich. The park was refurbished in 1991 and the state-of-the-art surface was opened by a Rangers XI in front of 1100. Carloway have been enjoying a revival recently and were champions in 2013, as well as reaching the final of the Highland Amateur Cup in 2014.
My introduction to Lewis football was in 1991 when Carloway beat Shawbost 3-1. Nowadays Carloway’s derby games are against Westside. The good old days of Westside playing at Barvas machair are long gone and they moved into a new facility at Barvas Hall in 2003.
Moving further up the West side of Lewis into Ness you eventually come to the village of Eoropie where Ness FC play at Fivepenny. Bear in mind that coming from Uig this is a journey of 55 miles. These isles are bigger than you think. The Niseachs, formed in 1933, were almost unbeatable in the 1980s and 1990s, with 12 league titles and 4 Highland Amateur Cup wins, and Donald “Sweeney” Macsween banging the goals in. Stephen Macritchie was a fine full back and Roddy “Barvas” Macrae was a pacy winger who had lost an eye and went on to be a minister in Edinburgh. “Rasper” Macdonald went on to play for Caledonian and his son Neil for ICT. However they haven’t won the championship since 1999.
In 1997 Ness FC hosted a friendly between Steve Paterson’s ICT side who had just won the Scottish Div 3 title, and a Lewis and Harris ‘B’ Select. The B team were delighted to get off with a 4-0 defeat, especially as the A select were hammered 7-1 at Goathill the following night. The entire ICT squad turned up at a Saw Doctors concert in Back village hall after the game and I was delighted to be there too.
Just north of Stornoway are Back FC who were formed, wait for it, in 1933. They play at the Coll Centre which boasts a modern indoor hall. The club have six league titles and won the Highland Amateur Cup in 2004. Scotland internationalist Andy Gray turned out for Back as a youngster.
With many islanders sharing the same name, nicknames are common and I remember Kevin ‘Bloxy’ Murray turning out for Back but not his father, who I think had the same nickname.
On the other side of Broad Bay is the peninsula known as Point (An Rubha). Point FC (Sgioba an Rubha) the fierce rivals of the Bacachs, play in the village of Garrabost and were formed in 1934, although a team from Point entered the Eilean an Fhraoich Cup in 1933. This cup is unique in that players turn out for their home village no matter which club they have signed for. It is a cup for the rural parts and the town clubs do not enter. ‘Eilean an Fhraoich’ meaning ‘Heather Isle’ is another name for Lewis.
Comparing the old with the new you can see the seated stand which replaced the old shed. Point’s new facility, including a fine social club, was opened in 2007 by John Greig and Ronnie MacKinnon who hails from Uist. Point have a proud history with 17 league titles and won the Highland Amateur Cup in 1994.
A short hop past the airport and into town brings you to Goathill Park, home of United and Aths.
Athletic’s last league title was in 2012 and their club legend is Magnus Johnson with nearly 400 goals. A good article about the history of Aths can be found HERE. United have been going since 1944 and a potted history of the club is HERE.
Moving out of Stornoway and down the A859 Harris road you come to Leurbost and Creagan Dubh, proud home of Lochs FC, the current champions. The Lochies were formed in 1934 and their incredibly detailed website and history is HERE. From Uig, Lochs are almost my local team, but Carloway are a mile closer but in the opposite direction.
Finally, if you carry on down the A859 you come to Tarbert in Harris (Confused? Lewis and Harris is one island). Harris FC play at Rally Park, next to the Sir E. Scott High School. Rally Park has had a bit of a facelift since I first visited, as these photos show, but it still has the same stunning view out over West Loch Tarbert.
Harris FC dates from 1925 and has won the league 4 times but not since 2001. I wonder what happened to Geoff Peterson, a Scouser I think, who starred and scored for the Hearachs back in the 80s and 90s. John Macleod once produced a Harris fanzine too.
A word about the Highland Amateur Cup. Teams from the Western Isles were first admitted in 1984 and so far Ness (4), Lochs (2) and Point are the only Hebridean teams to have won it. The big problem with this competition is the massive distances teams have to travel, with opponents from Orkney and Caithness a possibility. Often games are played at a halfway house such as Contin, Dingwall or Ullapool to fit in with ferry times. In true Highland fashion, the traditional post-match hospitality is not forgotten. Island sides have been known to receive sandwiches from the opposition to carry aboard the ferry. The realities of The Beautiful Game in the Far North.