The footballing pioneers of rural Caithness
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Ken Wood looks back to the early days of village football in the county
As organised football spread through the country, reaching Caithness in the 1880s, village teams were among the pioneers.
The first documentation of a club being formed was most probably a paragraph in the John O’Groat Journal in 1887 reporting: "On Saturday last [April 30] a friendly match was played in the Black Park at Lybster. A large number of spectators... In their first match they were able to prove themselves the equal to such practised footballers as the Dunbeath club." So clearly Dunbeath had a team a year or two earlier and probably played matches with Helmsdale and Golspie. By 1890 Latheronwheel Alerts were playing at Smithy Park against Lybster Young Portland, Borgue Wanderers and Forse Albion.
Across the county, Castletown Rangers had a very capable side. The goalkeeper Willie Hunter was a painter and one winter he went off to Edinburgh for work and played professionally in the Scottish League for St Bernard's. In March 1893 Castletown beat Rovers 2-1 at Castlehill and drew the return game in Wick 1-1. On October 21 the flagstone villagers were the visitors at Harrow Park for Wick Academy’s first ever game. They lost 6-1 but a week later won the return 2-1. The Castletown Rangers officials of that period were presidents Mr Torrance (bank agent) then Thomas Duncan, vice-presidents Dr Durran and Mr Murray (postmaster), secretary John Manson, treasurer William Mackenzie, then secretary/treasurer Hugh MacAskill. The team lined up with J Mathieson, F Banks, G Gunn, J Coghill, P McKillop, T Hay, H MacAskill, J Manson, G Mowat, R Ross and DDC Murray, and also W Cuthbertson and G Taylor.
Before the turn of the century the town footballers had senior and junior leagues in Wick and Thurso throughout the winter months and from 1901 to be selected for a Wick v Thurso match for the Harmsworth Bowl was the pinnacle of recognition. Village teams continued with ad-hoc friendlies, though Lybster and Dunbeath contested the Mackay Cup and combined as a Parish of Latheron team in 1906 to challenge Wick’s representative team. In front of goalkeeper James Patterson were D Sinclair, A Sutherland, G Sinclair, P Gunn, J Sinclair, D Forbes, J Gunn, J Mackay, F Sutherland and D Gunn.
During debate in the early 1920s about the structure of a county league it was frequently suggested that Castletown, Halkirk and Lybster could be included. The John O’Groat Journal’s Saturday evening edition (the Sports Weekly) of September 29, 1923, set out an example fixture list and details of likely expenditure. The home team would pay the referee’s fee of 10 shillings plus expenses and a £5 guarantee to the away team. Travel costs for away matches were estimated at £34 10s for Lybster, £32 for Castletown and Halkirk and £28 for Wick and Thurso clubs. The suggested admission charge for spectators was 8d for men and 4d for ladies and children, of which a quarter would be entertainment tax. The correspondent, a former Wick association official, concluded: "An extended football league in the county is worthy of a fair trial. The advancement and betterment of the game is something every football enthusiast should strive to attain".
The outcome was that the county league, which started in 1927 as a knockout cup, was restricted to the three Wick and three Thurso clubs. They refused to include Lybster Portland, claiming their pitch was not up to the required standard.
Halkirk FC was founded in 1927 and remarkably the first secretary, Bill Mackenzie, was a few years ago still following the team’s fortunes from his Edinburgh home, aged 100-plus.
Keiss appeared on the scene at New Year 1928 and two years later the north-east rural league started with a 2-2 draw between Keiss and Halkirk on May 5, 1930. Keiss player A B Henderson was league secretary. Watten, Mey and Castletown were the other founder members with Wick Boy Scouts invited to balance the numbers. Keiss enjoyed a long winning run to lift the Clyne Bowl, presented by honorary league president Noss Clyne, and the Mackay Cup, donated by Abrach Mackay, Castletown.
The season ran from early May to mid-August, with evening league matches and Saturday afternoon cup ties. Players had to be born in their club’s village or resident there for six months. Inevitably there were disputes over this rule. Village players could play for town teams in the winter season, but there was no reciprocal arrangement. Allegedly talented town players sometimes lodged with their girlfriend’s family in a village in order to qualify to play the next summer season!
Castletown were the dominant side of the 1930s, winning the league most years, though Keiss were 1939 champions, Neil Harrold netting 21 goals for them.
Dunbeath and Lybster teams were prominent when football came to Caithness in the 1880s and Dr William Alexander Mackay, son of the Lybster minister, has received worldwide recognition not just for his pioneering medical and hospital work for the Rio Tinto Mining Co but as founder and driving force behind Spain’s first football club, Recreativo de Huelva.
However, they, like the village teams elsewhere in the county, had been shunned when the county league started in 1927. Keiss, Halkirk and particularly Castletown had enjoyed success in the 10 pre-war seasons of the North-East Caithness Rural League.
Castletown were the first post-war champions in 1947 but the honours were shared in subsequent seasons. Halkirk in 1948 and Watten in 1949 lifted the Clyne Bowl as league champions. In 1950 Watten won the new league championship trophy donated by Mr and Mrs J Sutherland of Mount Pleasant, Castletown.
Castletown were closing in on the title in 1951, leading 3-0 in the last match when it was abandoned due to heavy rain, so the trophy was not awarded. By the time the rural league merged with the county league in 1975, Castletown had won 11 more championships. Keiss with four titles and Halkirk with six continued to be their main rivals. Other teams competing for the trophies included Canisbay Pentland, Bower, Stirkoke and Staxigoe.
Meanwhile, Lybster had been accepted into the county league and, with six Larnach brothers forming more then half the team, were champions in 1954/55, 1955/56 and 1957/58. A Keiss team fielded five Mackay brothers and, over three generations, seven members of the Harrold family.
Castletown won the county league in 1975, 1976 and 1978, while Canisbay had become Pentland United and won promotion as Division Two champions in 1977, moving to Dunnet.
From 1978 the Highland Amateur Cup became a prestigious competition and Caithness village teams have done well. Runners-up in 1979, Halkirk won the cup in 1982 and 1985, while Pentland United enjoyed a 1-0 win in the 1987 final against Wick Groats and have now played in nine finals, winning eight of them, including a 2008 clash with neighbours Castletown.
Halkirk were 1979 county champions and success continued into the ’80s with a record five-in-a row Rosebank Cup triumphs and three more league titles. The last game of the 1987 campaign, away to Wick Groats, was almost over at 1-1 with Groats about to claim the league on goal difference. Halkirk needed a win and Jocky Mackay’s 87th-minute goal achieved it.
A young Dunbeath team enjoyed a few seasons of county league football, winning the second division in 1982. Many critics thought John O’Groats would hardly win a game when they were admitted in 1997 after a few seasons in the Thurso and District Friendly League. Their local youngsters came of age to win the second division in 2001 and the "end of the road" club have performed consistently well in the top flight for nearly two decades, improving their park too.
Castletown’s Back Park has the reputation of best playing surface in the county, especially since a 1995 refurbishment, and has hosted many cup finals and county games. Their team won the league in dramatic fashion at the Dammies in 1989 with a late equaliser from Donald Mackay against already relegated Thurso Pentland. The Quarrymen have since had a long period of relegations and promotions.
Pentland United’s league title in 1988 was followed by 14 more, an amazing haul. Hardly a year goes by for Stabbies without a trophy but recently they have had to accept a runners-up role behind all-conquering Wick Groats. Ham Park is named after long-term backroom stalwart Alistair Ham, while the club's successes of the past 40 years have been masterminded by Duncan Gray, Dennis Manson, Martin Nicolson and Michael Gray, backed by an enthusiastic off-field team of helpers and fundraisers.
A new page in rural football was turned on June 18, 1993, with the founding of Halkirk United to play the winter season in the North Caledonian League. The Anglers had not joined just to make up the numbers and, the following May, John MacDonald’s squad emerged as champions of the 16 team league. Ian Macdonald in 2010/11 and Jocky Mackay the next season also managed championship-winning sides and in July 2013 the Halkirk Community Sports Foundation proudly staged United’s first game at Morrison Park, a North Cup tie v Clachnacuddin.
Win or lose, our village teams still take to the field, supported by their communities, and can be proud of their successes over the past 90, 100 or, for Lybster and Castletown, 130-plus years. There are few if any other counties in Scotland that can boast as many village football clubs who have survived despite many of their young men moving away.