“Fat slags…” and shinty sticks

This will, eventually, be a mild rant.

Funny how events from the present can recall, vividly, events from the past. It happened to me a few days ago, in England. But first the past…


Sticks & stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me... © John MacPherson

Sticks & stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me… © John MacPherson



…when I was in my teens I worked in the shipyards on the Clyde in Glasgow, staying in a run-down hostel beside Victoria Park in Partick. I didn’t like the city much, so every Friday evening after work I hitch-hiked home to the Highlands to play shinty (a somewhat ‘tough’ ball game played with a stout stick, a bit like hockey crossed with kendo and few rules). I hitch-hiked because I had no money for anything else, and this involved a walk along Dumbarton Road, and up onto Great Western Road where traffic heading north would be likely to pick me up.

The only problem with this, on a Friday evening in the early 1970’s, was the gauntlet of gangs I’d to negotiate. Whiteinch, Yoker, and adjoining areas were the haunts of groups of thugs, some armed with knives, who’d think nothing of sticking a blade in you if they weren’t doing it to each other.

One of my workmates had three fingers chopped off one evening by a group of young lads, one armed with a meat cleaver who’d taken a dislike to my friend’s hand with which he’d carelessly gripped a bus-stop pole as he waited for a lift home. And on one memorable evening a bunch of very stupid Scotstoun thugs jumped me and a few friends (all from the Highlands ) as we queued for fish and chips. Having been raised on venison and salmon we were all..er..’robust’ and gave the lads a bit of a fright, however this loss of face led to a concerted attack on our hostel by an organized mob of them one evening, involving air-rifles, rocks, and several crossbow bolts which were launched at us.

If you’re interested here’s a list of the gangs that were about at that time, and there’s loads of other material online exploring and explaining the origins of all of this.

And so as it got dark on Friday I’d wander along through Clydebank heading for home in the Highlands, with my little sports bag draped, and balancing Huck Finn-style on my shinty stick which I held over my shoulder. It was a beautifully hand-made stick, almost 4 feet of heavy laminated ash which I practiced with after work during the week. I got ‘looks’ on many evenings from the thugs, but no bother from anyone, but then one evening it happened.

I sauntered along as always, watchful, and across the street in the distance noticed a group of six or so thugs out looking for trouble. Heads turned towards me, a lone young lad in the winter gloom. They all turned, eyes scanning, hostile, then slowly, and with calculated menace, they peeled off the pavement and aggressively strutted across the road timing their arrival to coincide with my passing.

I looked about but there were few people around. I slipped the shinty stick down off my shoulder in the gloom between the pools of street lights, and hooked the bag strap over my head and around my shoulder, grasping the stick with my right hand keeping it low and hidden, my left hand free and empty.

“Where de ye think you’re gaun?” growled an aggressive voice, the thug’s leader.

“Aye where ur you gaun, this is oor turf, who ur you?” another added.

The pavement was blocked by four of them, the other two coming behind me.

“I’m going home. To play shinty…” I smiled and raised the stick, which they had obviously not noticed until now “…anyone got a problem with that…?”

Their eyes narrowed and their faces tightened. “Aye right, shinty eh? Shinty?” said growler, rolling the word ‘shinty’ over on his tongue like a bitter taste…

…aye, shinty…” I replied with a lightness of tone, no hint of fear “…dangerous game, lots of fun though, but dangerous…oh aye it can be very dangerous…that is if you’re not careful. But I try to be careful, mind. It’s wise to be careful. Very wise.”

And I walked on, they parted to allow me passage, their leader adding with a note of sarcasm “…best watch yerself big yin, just watch yerself…”

“Me? Oh aye, I will boys I will, and I usually do, and you boys do the same, and have a good evening eh? Mind how you go now. Stay safe eh?”

And then I was on Great Western Road where, to the passing drivers, the shinty stick marked me a sportsman, a safe bet for a lift, and I’d be a hundred miles up the road by midnight.


Shinty © John MacPherson

Shinty © John MacPherson


That was 40 years ago.

I took two sticks with me when I went on holiday a few weeks ago, one an old beaten up thing my son William bashes about with as he learns, and a nice shiny new one I bought for myself a few weeks previously. We took the dogs for a walk behind William grandparent’s house in suburban Buckingham and had a wee hit about with the shinty sticks as we went, enjoying the opportunities afforded by the extensive grassy area behind the houses. It was a jolly family group – William, his mum and our Border Collie, and granny too with her dog.

As we got back onto the main road I heard the unmistakable roar of a V8 engine as some monster sports car approached. It came closer, but still out of sight, just as a disabled woman on a mobility scooter came off the drop kerb to cross the clearly empty road about 70 metres in front of us, at a T-junction. She was half-way across the street when sports-car-man burbled around the corner at speed, an open-top Ford Mustang going way too fast, that suddenly went nose down as he jammed the brakes on hard to allow her to cross.

But as he did so he lifted his head above the windscreen and shouted “You fat slag, lose some fucking weight and you wont need a fucking scooter…” and then floored it, tyres squealing as the Mustang scrabbled to propel itself like a missile up the residential street. It was over in seconds. I ran forwards, shinty stick in hand, to the dismayed woman “…are you ok? Did I hear what I just thought I heard?”

She sighed with exasperation, embarrassment red on her face, tears welling up and rolling down her face “Yes you did. It’s not my fault I’m this size….and…oh…I’m not well, I’m not well …I just can’t go anywhere without my scooter…I need it to get about… “

We spent some time reassuring her and then, finally, saw her safely on her way.

We were too late to intervene in her exchange, and to be honest I’ve no idea what would have transpired had I been closer. I was angry to the point of exploding whilst carrying a potentially offensive weapon – not a good combination.

But after all that, what mattered? Really mattered? What mattered to the woman was that we showed concern for her. We made her smile, then laugh heartily and made sure she knew that ‘he’ was “a total dickhead”, but that not everyone she might meet on the street is. And she appreciated that.

And as I relaxed my grip on the ash handle of my stick, I realized that it was words that had hurt her so deeply, and that it was words, much better words, that had eased that pain and indignity.

And that ‘weapon’ is something really powerful we ALL possess.

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Tomas Tyner says:

    Just to say I really enjoyed reading. it’s a wonderful piece of writing and a lovely combination of past and present. A powerful ending threaded together by youth, experience, humanity (and a shinty stick). Over here (iIreland) we have hurleys made of ash too to play hurling and guess closely related to Shinty.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Hi Tomas – thanks for reading, glad it struck a chord. Aye I well know the hurley boys – played against them when they came over from Ireland a few times. Shinty is mad enough, but add a team of hurling players and it goes off the richter scale of crazy!

  2. Kim Court says:

    Kindness – whether in word or deed – is most definitely a weapon for good that we all possess. Beautiful post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.