With its rich mixture of culture, distinctive language tones, history, architecture and scenery the sport of football tends not to be the foremost thing on our minds when you think about the Scottish Highlands.
The Highlands are often regarded as the true pathway to a rich diversity of both natural and man made landscapes. City, towns, countryside and rugged coastline all make a mark amidst a region that is a unique part of the United Kingdom. Despite being sparsely populated and more commonly known for its fresh air, openness and mountains the city of Inverness was by the 1890’s a town with nearly 20,000 inhabitants.
Even to this day (often in these times of mass tourism) it’s clichés about salmon, loch monsters, whisky, forests and mountain tops that fulfil our imaginations when the United Kingdom’s highest region is mentioned. This is region that includes the highest mountain in the UK – Ben Nevis; but this huge mountain does not sit in complete isolation given it sits nor far from the home of Highland League Club Fort William FC.
If its rural landscapes are highly identifiable then not so long ago football in the Scottish region of the Highlands was distinguishable from the nearby senior professional leagues. For some time, there was no clear pathway to senior professional SFL status.
Entry to the structured SFL only arrived when more traditional sides in the powerful industrial regions of Scotland faded away. For every Third Lanark and Clydebank there was a Ross County or Inverness Caledonian itching to flex its football ambitions and join the professional set up.
Highland League – Origins
From humble origins in a small working men’s club in Inverness the face of the Highland League really changed during the later years of the 20th century. Expansion within the SFL saw Ross County, Elgin City, Peterhead and an amalgamated Inverness club admitted to the senior set up. The balance of football power in Scottish football was never changing but with more traditional names like Meadowbank Thistle and Clydebank falling out of the league like likes of Inverness and Ross County had a chance to enter the national league set up.
But for every Ross County and Inverness Caley Thistle there is an Elgin City and Peterhead; teams that have found movement up the league ladder very difficult due to a lack of resources. The sides from Dingwall and Inverness are however now established names in the SPFL. But while Dingwall remains a small outpost not far from Inverness it is fair to say that the new Inverness club has a rich a history and tradition; one as rich as the landscapes that surrounds.
During the 1880’s an interest in the Highlands of Scotland reached record levels. Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Highlands inflicted a massive change on the region. Suddenly thanks to the Queen and the growth of the railways it become trendy and fashionable for British people to travel north of the border to smell fresh air, build baronial homes and take part in outdoor sports more commonly associated with the royal family.
In the space of just a few years the Highlands stopped being seen as an unreachable outpost. Suddenly thanks to rising disposable incomes, the growth of organised education, train travel and mass newspaper media the area became the centre of British fascination and attention.
As Highland clothing became fashionable, so did interest in the history of clans and the bagpipes. Suddenly, lots of people in the United Kingdom had an interest in their Highland roots, leading to the establishment in the late 19th century of clan societies.
If the richer sections of society were interested in more upmarket sports like hunting and shooting so the working classes needed its leisure pursuits. And very often this came via organised football matches.
By the 1890’s organised association football in Scotland was progressing at a rate faster than anywhere in Europe. Its national association – the SFA – has been formed for almost 20 years as had the domestic cup competition. Scotland had taken part in the first ever international football match between Scotland and England at Hamilton Crescent in Glasgow and its football pioneers were soon to play a role in bringing football to South America.
If cross national border travel to the Highlands was allowed via the growth of the railways so football matches were becoming a cross border affair. Some Scottish clubs had participated in the English FA Cup with one club Queens Park reaching the final in twice. Off the field some of the earliest English football administrators were Scotsman; educated, commercially astute and influential these people helped to establish the leagues and the rules of the game in many of the densely populated industrial regions of England.
Yet for many people actually living in the Highlands their living conditions and their lifestyles were as far from the characteristic of the main British industrial centres as you could get. Unlike Rangers and Celtic who could pull in thousands of fans from the industrial urban areas of Glasgow there were no big population catchment areas outside of the reasonably sized Inverness.
In truth most people at the end of the 19th century were seeking a way out of the Highlands rather than developing it as a place of leisure, work and infrastructure.
For many Highlanders, the British army provided an escape route. Highland regiments played a major part in helping Britain to keep hold of its growing Empire; an sprawling Empire of which Queen Victoria was the ruler. These type of soldiers played a major role in military campaigns in places like the Crimea, the Napoleonic wars, the Sudan and South Africa.
If the large English clubs’ we know today were products of the class and educational divides likewise those from the original Highland League set up. Like many of the football leagues of the time the Highland League was an idea conceived during the industrial age.
In the case of the Highland League this was the Inverness Workman’s Club on August 4th 1893. Employees of the Highland Railway Company had their Company Headquarters, the Locomotive and Carriage & Wagon Workshops in Inverness.
At a meeting a number of clubs expressed an enthusiastic willingness to become part of a competitive football league. While the idea brought logistical considerations given the often harsh landscapes, primitive roads and isolation, the Highland League set up was confirmed.
The original league consisted of seven teams many of whom had roots in the industrial craftsman, military and mechanical heritage of the region. These sides included Inverness Thistle, Inverness Caledonian (named after the Caledonian Canal), Inverness Clachnacuddin, Forres Mechanics FC, Inverness Citadel and the Cameron Highlanders.
With full membership of the SFA (the association gave its blessing to the league in 1893) many of the clubs could participate in the domestic Scottish Cup. And soon, wider interest in Highland competition was engaged spreading towards the Moray coastline and southwards to the small market towns of Huntly and Keith.
Keith FC were founded in 1910 and they entered the SHFL in 1924. Fraserburgh, a large fishing port, first took part in the Highland League system in 1921.
Wider afield some of the more modern day members of the league system were establishing football roots.
Inverurie Loco Works FC were founded in 1902 by workmen from the Great North of Scotland Railway (GNSR) firm who had their Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Workshops in Inverurie. This club now take part in the league and play annually in the Scottish Cup.
Other sides such as Turriff United, Formartine United and Cove Rangers have joined from the Junior football leagues.
One hundred years after its humble foundations in a working mens’ club the Highland League contained eighteen clubs from the Scottish Highlands, the nearby lowlands of Huntly and Keith as well as a number of teams from the more easterly Moray coastline and Aberdeen.
These teams included Elgin City, Cove Rangers, Lossiemouth, Inverness Caley, Ross County, Huntly, Clachnacuddin, Inverness Thistle, Buckie Thistle, Fraserburgh, Deveronvale, Keith, Brora Rangers, Peterhead, Rothes, Fort William, Forres Mechanics and Nairn County.
Once a very small league dominated by teams from Inverness it is now a league with a special character. Its member teams have the opportunity yearly to gain a place in the senior SPFL set up thanks to a play off against the winners of the Lowland League and the team which finished bottom of SPFL League Two. It is a league where one-time founder member clubs from Inverness amalgamated resources forming a new club that has gone onto compete in the early rounds of the UEFA Europa League following national domestic cup success in 2015.
Not immune to the modern characteristics of football development (most clubs having thriving websites, social media channels and small organised fan bases) many of the stadia still retain the original telling signs of tradition. For every newer Caledonian Stadium in Inverness or Balmoor Stadium in Peterhead there is a smaller football ground that contains the original styled ornamentation and design of old.
Whether these be stone clad entrance walls, wrought iron club gates or traditional club houses the Highland League is home to some of the best character left in Scottish football.