A Question of Sport

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By Daibhidh Rothach

Around a decade ago, still with the naive belief that a Scots-speaking ‘ned’ from the South West would be given any sort of opportunity amidst the rampant prejudice of Gaeldom and its cultural environs, I sat in the audience of Cunntas. Some current politics, wind farms, the avoidance of any in-depth debate on land reform; thus went the BBC Alba (or, rather, its BBC 2 Thursday nicht precursor slot) formula. And so to the turn of the ever-affable and slightly boyish Gilleasbuig MacDonald, who had a beef with the state’s support of his beloved shinty. Following some predictably stagnant establishment-speak from the presenter about being outward looking – which invariably partners any suggestion that we promote our own culture – came the Sgitheanach’s closing statement: If we don’t look after it, who else is going to do it?

Nothing hugely profound or complex, perhaps, but absolutely everything which embodies the pragmatic approach normal countries have to managing their own cultures. But of course, Scotland is far from a normal country, and it is to be suspected that even if a move were made to prioritise football or golf in the school system – sports which have achieved that all important nod of cultural acceptance from the outside world – it would be subject to the obligatory period of feigned introspective concern by faux internationalists in red rosettes mouthing off about narrow-mindedness and opening our arms to the world. Phrases, it must be added, which many of them barely understand or deliberately use out of context for political ends.

But back to the BBC. Clearly, it is on our state broadcaster that a huge amount of the responsibility for the promotion of sport falls. With this responsibility – and this is something of which its less intellect repellent employees are perfectly aware – comes great control. Despite the incursion of Sky, it still has the power to influence the popularity and public perception of a sport, and can even kickstart the fortunes of those which perhaps lack the glamour to develop organically. Snooker, oft considered the realm of the crook and gambler before BBC sanitisation in the 1980s, eventually came to enjoy a huge increase in popularity, and the era of million pound sponsorship and clean-cut superstars. Likewise, other less high octane sports, such as darts and green bowling, benefited immensely with BBC 2 coverage.

Despite holding Richard Corsie personally responsible for my heart rate plummeting to around ten beats per minutes one evening in the late eighties, this isn’t always a bad thing. Naturally, no one west of the Clyde knows the rules of rugby, if indeed there are any. The televised Six Nations, though, not only exposes us to a new culture, but gives an opportunity to hail abuse at a whole new demographic of wax-jacketed city types from Aberdeen, or wherever Morayfield is. The more recent prominence given to women’s football and that which athletics will receive in the summer are further examples of how a sport’s popularity need not, and in these cases should not, translate into the volume of coverage it receives in the media.

In the main, however, the output of BBC and Radio Scotland’s sport content is a disservice to the nation’s sporting heritage, failing both to reflect its diversity and give those less popular the prestige imbued by regular media coverage. Worse, English Premiership scores are frequently given headline priority over those of the SPFL, and its highlights, although produced south of the Border, have always been far more frequently aired over the years than those of our domestic league.

By doing so, the BBC effectively acts as an advertising agent for the EPL and its wearisome, and for the majority of its existence erroneous, self-aggrandisement as ‘the best league in the world’. Yes, the Premiership is superior to what’s on offer in Scotland, but by this rationale, Spanish and German highlights should be made available and given headlines. Not only that, the junior game in Scotland would have no support whatsoever. The crux of the matter is that German and Spanish results are not culturally relevant, and although the argument could be made that the English game is, in no way should it be prioritised over our national league, or for that matter our regional and minority sports.

Despite the consecration of the EPL by some, the feeling generated by the fever-pitch levels of attention given to an England team departing for the World Cup is one of bitterness, which, on a purely football-rivalry level, is perfectly normal. The irony is that England are perfectly entitled to craw about their World Cup victory, any nation would do exactly the same, and rightly so. The problem is that it is actually broadcast in Scotland, something akin to RTL Nederland beaming in a grinning Franz Beckenbauer live from the Brandenburg Gate to talk of the World Cup this summer, and expecting Jan and Thijs in Groningen to graciously wish Duitsland good luck.

This sporting genuflection extends beyond football. So used to the Anglo-centric spin has the population become, it is rarely questioned beyond the odd grumble into a pint of Saturday afternoon heavy that the cricket score of two countries, neither of whom are Scotland, should be given significant airtime, while results from the furious rivalries of junior football are not. But there are more cricket grounds in Scotland than there are football, some argue. As well as this being utter nonsense, it’s as good an argument as any for coverage of local Scottish cricket, not the English national team team.

Much in the same way as the education system (correctly) normalises Shakespeare via formal study while Robert Burns is a tartan swathed funster wheeled out in January, by keeping the Camanachd and Scottish Junior cups an annual showpiece, the BBC subtly maintain their cultural obscurity. Scottish sport, then, is the Other, which after decades leaves a youth which is as likely to wear a Chelsea top as they are that of their home town club. The use of language is also significant, the league to many now being a referral to the EPL, not Scotland’s domestic top flight.

Call it parochial, inward looking, or small minded – I’ll take that over imperialist – but shinty, junior football, curling, and for that matter newer sports such as mountain biking, have more cultural and geographical relevance to the nation than the Norwich v West Ham result, and deserve wider and more in-depth coverage than that which they currently receive. In any case, wall to wall Premiership news is a mere button’s click away for those who care.

Although it still kowtows naively to protocol by giving too much precedence to cricket and the EPL in headlines, it is via Gaelic media that Scottish sport finds its most accurate and diverse reflection, which may in part be in due to BBC Alba and Radio nan Gàidheal’s roles as half national, half local broadcasters. Shamefully, it is only BBC Alba which currently shows any live – or as live – as the case may be, SPFL fixtures. Saturday morning’s Spòrs na Maidne on Radio nan Gàidheal regularly covers all manner of the more esoteric of our sports, shinty being the most notable, and the consistently excellent Derek Murray on his evening Siubhal gu Seachd mixes the latest news from the Western Isles’ fitba league with infectious humour. Even with only the most tenuous of links to the Hebrides, I find this infinitely more appealing than another tired rehash of the Premiership.

Whether it transforms into a true state broadcaster post September 18th or maintains its current structure, the BBC in Scotland must surely reassess its outlook on how it delivers news and coverage of the nation’s sport. In a country of five and half million people, a state broadcaster must be more agile, more aware of local cultural nuances and sports, and promote them accordingly. The top tier of football, a game Scotland gave to the world, should not be relegated behind those of a nation which has the gall to misappropriate this invention and record a European Championship song about it.

While a line should be drawn firmly under live caber tossing, there are a host of minority Scottish sports which are worthy of more coverage. From somewhere, BBC Scotland must find the cultural confidence and open-mindedness to broadcast Kilbirnie Ladeside versus Auchinleck Talbot to a shocked Morningside audience, and to realise the only Ashes that should be heard of are from the clatter of the camain.



Categories: Scottish Culture

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25 replies

  1. I stay in Ayrshire and I love shinty, it is a great sport, skill and bravery personified. I do draw the line at the Talbot though. Just kidding. I would love to see shinty on the box, more often, as I like many, can’t be arsed with fitba.

  2. A good piece apart from the jibes at the Scottish rugby community. Glasgow Warriors have an ever growing fan base due to their position as one of the best teams in their league and the sport is gaining more prominence in Glasgow, it’s unfair to write rugby off as a toff’s game when attendance numbers at club and international games are rising whilst, at least with the clubs, football crowds are diminishing.

    • There were no jibes at the rugby community, there was a comment about our national games demise, which is undeniable, surely?

      • Sorry if I took it the wrong way. Some people would agree with that statement however with a good foundation being developed Scottish rugby is likely to become a more powerful force internationally, it’s breaking down the stereotypes of being a sport played only by fee paying schools and that’s demonstrated by the growing fan base in Glasgow, a city not usually associated with rugby. For example more people recently attended a league match one night than a Scotland football friendly. I agree with the overall direction of what’s been written, I just thought I’d raise a point that I’m passionate about.

  3. Pìos math, a-rithist. An dòchas gum faic sinn tuilleadh mar seo.

    Good to hear some praise for BBC Alba – ‘nats’ often forget about it when decrying the London-based BBC’s bias. BBC Alba is well produced on a shoe-string budget and provides good coverage of our politics and sport. All in the Scots tongue.

    • I very much approve of BBC Alba and any programming in or about Gaelic culture, but that culture is not, and never was, ‘Scottish culture’ (and I’ll nit pick and point out that ‘Scots’ is a cultural avenue quite distinct from Gaelic). It is one very important piece of Scottish culture which is made up of many different cultures, including an English speaking one. It is not BBC Alba’s place to push forward the culture of the East Coast or the Lowlands (as examples) but those cultural roots need to be represented in our national media too.

  4. Here’s an interesting thing.It is just presumed by people who like football in Scotland.That come the Monday after we have discussed the Scottish results at work.We will then be asked what did you think of Man U or Liverpool.I usually look blankly and say aye whatever.It is just presumed that the English results are of interest to me.Its not that I hate or dismiss English football just that I don’t follow it as my team the Jags dont play in that league.I don’t deliberately avoid it to make a point.I genuinely just don’t pay attention to it.Same for champions league don’t really follow it unless there is a Scottish team in it.Does that make me small minded.No I just follow things that I can actually relate to.You are correct about Scotland having certain cultural sports that are particular to this country.Unfortunately football rules the roost in Scotland.I can take or leave football.More interested in skiing and athletics as I am involved in these sports.How many times did we have to listen to English commentators in Sochi saying there were no mountains or natural snow in the UK.Utterly ignorant of what Scottish people learn on.It ain’t a warehouse in Milton Keynes.Baxter learned to ski at Cairngorm not a dry slope.

  5. The first question I get asked by football fans in Australia is ‘Rangers or Celtic?’ – and when I say ‘United’ they nod sagely and expiate on Manchester vs Doncaster or whatever. I usually have to clarify that it is ‘Dundee United’ – and most of them have vaguely heard the name somewhere. Good piece. I do agree though that it would be nice for Rugby to have more of a national presence and not be linked to the Borders and fee-paying schools. I often thought that one reason was diet. Turning out for a comprehensive – our fee-paying school opponents all seemed to be at least 4 inches taller and weigh a stone or two heavier.

  6. This is a very strange article indeed.

    “The televised Six Nations, though, not only exposes us to a new culture, but gives an opportunity to hail abuse at a whole new demographic of wax-jacketed city types from Aberdeen, or wherever Morayfield is.”

    I’m sure there’s a point in there somewhere but it seems to be lost in the bizarrely bigoted remark about Aberdeen and “Morayfield”.

    Conveniently, your article fails to mention that we should be out doing sport instead of sitting around watching it (which seems to be the part you have a problem with).

    Also, if people wanted to watch other sports (like shinty or curling) then they can go and watch them anytime they like, just not on their TV i.e. spectating in person vs spectating sitting around.

    “The top tier of football, a game Scotland gave to the world, should not be relegated behind those of a nation which has the gall to misappropriate this invention and record a European Championship song about it.”

    I think it’s fair to say that we’re past whoever gave football to the world and can safely say it is a global sport that nobody owns. Your assertion here is every bit as bad as said European Championship song.

    “While a line should be drawn firmly under live caber tossing, there are a host of minority Scottish sports which are worthy of more coverage. From somewhere, BBC Scotland must find the cultural confidence and open-mindedness to broadcast Kilbirnie Ladeside versus Auchinleck Talbot to a shocked Morningside audience, and to realise the only Ashes that should be heard of are from the clatter of the camain.”

    Again, another bigoted remark aimed at a specific population of Scotland.

    As for the general gist of the article, that the BBC should televise sports more “Scottish” in nature, I think you have scored a spectacular own goal here. You suggest that they should televise shinty to get more people interested in it (because few people in Scotland really are these days). This however would have the same purpose as the prioritisation of EPL scores in that it seeks to manipulate the audience into watching and being interested in something it currently is not.

    In short what you propose is a state broadcaster that manipulates the audience of Scotland towards sports that you personally see as more Scottish instead of ones you view otherwise.

    I really do expect better of Bella Caledonia than this.

    • I think you’re missing the point a little here. Sure, it’s great to go out and play sport yourself, or watch it live at the event, but sometimes certain sports need a little help from the media. Allowing top-flight football to drown out all the little sports is just as damaging to a nation as allowing one animal to drown out all other wildlife, for example. It’s about diversity.

      To me arguing that minority sports shouldn’t be given extra help from the media is the same as arguing that we shouldn’t have Gaelic-medium education – and the same as arguing that we should let the pandas, tigers and all other endangered species just die out. We have a wonderfully rich culture in Scotland, and we need to protect it. This should be a huge part of any public-service broadcaster’s responsibility.

      I can see how it’s possible to construe some of the remarks in the article as bigoted, but I think it was more intending to be flippant. It also illustrates the point that cultures which are thought by many to be natural and mainstream across Scotland, actually seem pretty alien and obscure to people from some parts of the country.

      Personally the last thing I want is for Scotland to become independent and then concentrate all the power, wealth and media focus in the “central belt” (it’s not really in the centre) – even if I do live in Glasgow myself.

      Although I will agree with you on the remark about the origins of football – not really relevant or helpful.

    • I do not agree with you at all… the article sums up the situation well…. so if “”someone can GO watch their desired sport”””” and yet they live like I do in the sticks… where travelling to a supermarket is a 36 mile trip…. with no train service within 40 miles… and a journey along a near single track road…. basically over hill and glen… so… as much as I do not have the time…. I would like to see the bbc not spend the VAST amounts it does on elite sports … Wimbledon receives a pay out of near £40 million…. which dwarfs when compared to what is spent keeping cricket alive…. live broadcasts…. travelling all expense paid “experts”…. or the in fashion coverage of rugby… whereas cycling has almost zero coverage… and if it wasn’t for SKY then the TWO UK champions would hardly be known….. SO… a radical and more enlightened approach is far away as far as I am concerned…. and articles like this simply point out the staid backward reserve thinking that is foisted on us WITHOUT a discussion…

  7. An interesting piece, though I would have liked more about the impact coverage has on participation.

    One thing that interests me, as someone old enough to remember when we qualified for World Cups, is the impact of the Anglo-centric commentary of Rio 2014 on voting intentions.

    Will they still be blethering on about 1966 and all that?

  8. I’d sooner watch Morris Dancing than football.

    Real men play shinty, all the other ball games are for boys who want to be girls. 🙂

  9. Daibhidh Rothach,

    Good article but I don’t think you should draw the line at caber tossing – after all, strongman competitions do get air time (usually on Channel 5) so why shouldn’t Scotland be promoting its own, some might say original, strong man event? It is a sport that is played throughout the world where the Scottish diaspora ended up and there are many participants from around the world who have no connection to Scotland (eg. Finns, Poles, Americans) except that they chose to participate in our games of strength.

    But I totally get that you had your tongue wedged in your cheek there, as you did with you remarks about rugby. Those who say you should have mentioned greater participation or spectating in person are, I feel, missing the point of your article (though of course there is nothing better than participation and turning out to watch a live game is definitely to be recommended)

    The fact is, we don’t have a Scottish media, we have Scottish branches of the British media and nowhere is this more apparent than on the BBC who take our £millions and give us ‘Monarch of the Glen’ and ‘River City’ and tell us we should be satisfied.

  10. Nice article- you’re not going to win any friends by dissing rugby, cricket and the EPL though.

    The fact is that these sports and competitions have a very wide following and participation in Scotland. Obviously the statistics are hard to find, but I don’t think there are more scots playing shinty than cricket. Personally I enjoy watching both sports and I think it would be a pity to deny ourselves an interest in cricket on an anti-english cultural prejudice.

    Obviously a sports coverage that catered accurately to scottish interests would be a boon- but that doesn’t mean that your EPL, cricket, rugby will vanish.

    • He wasn’t dissing rugby, cricket or the EPL! He was dissing the reporting of sport in Scotland that serves to maintain the very narrow spectrum of the status quo (football) and ignores pretty much everything else that is going on.

      Why is the EPL so popular in Scotland? Because it is never off the telly, that’s why! Nothing wrong with the EPL but why does BBC SCOTLAND feature it so heavily?

      Did you not understand the point he made about the BBC screening snooker and thereby transforming the sport from a minority interest to a multi-million pound phenomena?

      Think how so many sports could gain from having coverage of their pursuits? Take mountain-biking for example: Scotland is one of the number one locations in the world for mountain-biking, how many of us know that? There are thousands of Scots who participate in it every week and there are thousands of non-Scots who come to the country each year to ride. In fact I have a cousin and uncle coming from New Zealand this summer to ride in Scotland – only the second time they have done this. Can you imagine? Flying half way around the world from what must be considered one of the best places ever to mountain bike, to ride bikes in Scotland. And when you consider the world-class sailing, climbing, kayaking, road-cycling, etc. etc. we have to offer due to our geography, don’t you think our media should be illustrating that? But no, they stick with what is popular; football and yet more football.

      • He certainly was dismissive of rugby, cricket and EPL football.

        Don’t you think that the popularity of football is related to Scotland’s geography (physical and social) too?

        This article and comments section is just one noisy niche interest after another. Bad news for you- public service broadcasting must to a large degree follow demand rather than dictate it. And that will mean more football, cricket and rugby, and less BMX, shinty and sailing than you would like. But you can always buy Eurosport…

  11. You’ve helped me understand why I enjoy BBC Alba sports, even though I can’t understand a word of the commentary – it’s the enthusiasm and uniqueness. Imagine what we could do with Independence.

    Fifteen years ago I went on a ski trip to Vail ( Colorado, USA ) – guess what, this ski village had its own TV station interviewing businessmen, giving info on gigs etc which actually was interesting. The same applied – it was the enthusiasm.

  12. Thanks to BBCAlba I get to see Galgow and Edinburgh rugby. Even though I am not a Gaelic speaker you soon pick up the key words and the enthusiasm. I have no time whatsoever for cricket except when i hear that Holland can beat England. Would love to see more shinty and promotion of Scottish Sport in general. I love the Six Nations and have but then I played rugby for 30 years. Did not appreciate the weird comment about Murrayfield.

    • Bob, I think the comment about Murrayfield was supposed to illustrate how narrow the focus of the likes of the BBC are. I don’t doubt for an instant that there are school boys (and probably a few girls too) throughout Scotland who can list the names of the players in every major English football team but would not be able to place Murrayfield on a map (or even know what it was connected with). I don’t know where you live but as a nomadic Scot who has lived pretty much every where but the Borders, the level of ignorance of Scotland outside the Central Belt is staggering. My university educated partner had never been north of Aviemore before she met me (though had been as far south as Cornwall) and thought Aberdeen was located where Fraserburgh is. The focus of so much of the Scottish media is on the Central Belt and whatever is most popular, eg. football rather than rugby or shinty or whatever other sport you care to mention.

  13. Daibhidh, I find it odd that you accuse Gaeldom of prejudice against learners like yourself, (if I understand your opening comments correctly), when you write frequent articles for the Gaelic page of The Scotsman. Seems to me that that would indicate otherwise…I find it an odd view also when you consider the very large numbers of learners who work for Gaelic media, such as the BBC, eg O’ Gallagher, Wolff, Deeprose etc etc.

  14. The sticks used in the photo appear to be hurling sticks!

  15. The sticks in the photo are both Hurling and Shinty sticks, the photo being from the Scotland v Ireland international at the Bught Park, Inverness. This is an excellent article, highlighting the continuing cultural imperialism of the British state and its broadcaster. The same applies to Scottish newspapers. Shinty is Scotland’s national sport; it is the sport of the Gael, our nation builders, and together with bagpipes and tartan, is one of our strongest identifying cultural elements. Shinty is effectively ignored by mainstream BBC for simple political reasons. It is an icon of Gaelic nationalism. It is imperative that this is controlled by the state. Look at the BBC Sport website and look for the Shinty section. There isn’t one. Now, look at BBC Northern Ireland and look for Gaelic games. Hurling and Gaelic Football are undoubtedly bigger in Ireland but their cultural significance alone justifies their level of content on the BBC website. Shinty is ignored because it is dangerous. It has every element you would want in sport and if Scots saw enough of it, they would want more. Then they would start asking questions about it. Why do we never have programmes about these crucial cultural elements; Shinty and piping? We get endless series about the Tudors, etc, but nothing which is significant to our country. Of course it’s all political. That is why there is a definite agenda to promote cricket in Scotland, n TV, radio and in the papers.

  16. Goodish article but I do think it dismisses quite how interested a lot of Scots of all backgrounds are in the progress of the English cricket team. Also the EPL is very avidly followed in Scotland and most people I know have an “English” team they support as well as a Scottish team. I think commentators, MSPs get a little bit carried away saying why do we get report of the Ashes as it is of no interest in Scotland when what they really mean is it is of no interest to them. The problem is more large broadcasters ignoring “minority” sports which is a UK wide problem not an imperilist plot to marginalise Scottish/Gaelic sports

    • The EPL may be avidly followed in Scotland. This wasn’t the case when I was growing up (admittedly some time ago) – the fact that it is now perhaps reflects the enormous marketing machine it has become, in Scotland as well as elsewhere. It might be interesting to reflect on whether we could now be seeing shinty tops in high streets if only there had been a marketing dollar or 10.

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