Originally written for Turnstiles Issue 5 circa August 2022
1893, MDCCCXCIII, the year that gave us the diesel engine, car number plates and Pepsi (known as Brad’s drink at the time). In Scottish football terms, Culter, Dundee, Elgin City, Peebles Rovers and topically Wick Academy all came into being. Further afield, Basel, Genoa, Porto, Sparta Prague also appeared but up in the Highlands of Scotland, something monumental was brewing, one of the greatest inventions was about to be unleashed on the world………….
In the present day it ranges from Wick in the north to Brechin in the south. Inverness furthest west to Fraserburgh in the east. Eighteen clubs reside there almost of whom have long histories dating back over 100 years. With the oldest being Brora Rangers at an impressive 143 years old. Strathspey Thistle are the newest and fledglings compared to the Sutherland club and will celebrate their 30 years anniversary next year. However, neither club were part of this truly fantastic establishment in the beginning back in 1893, The name of that institution. The Highland Football League.
The most important event of the 893rd year of the second millennium took place in the Inverness Workman’s Club on the 4th of August where the decision was made to form a league, this pending on SFA approval. The meeting included representatives from Inverness Thistle, Caledonian, Clachnacuddin, Inverness Union, Inverness Citadel and Cameron Highlanders. (Forres Mechanics were invited post meeting) These were the seven who made history and became famous and a way more an important line up as the famed original six in the NHL or the Football League 12 of 1888. This was “the Highland 7”. To be noted Dingwall (later renamed Ross County) were part of the league at the start of the season but relinquished their membership after three games. The Highland Football League had announced itself on the Scottish game and football became better for it.
A lot has happened since its inception. Tough beginnings in terms of league numbers which even saw the league down to four clubs in 1896/97. Teams have come, teams have left. The military have entered on numerous occasions too in various guises. The geographically boundaries have extended beyond Highland over time but in the name of improving the league. Wartime stoppages took place resulting in makeshift war time leagues. In more recent times we have seen a revoked title (Elgin City) an unequalled five in a row dominance (Huntly) and the joining of the football pyramid system becoming the games fifth tier. The latter opening great opportunities at the top (see Cove Rangers) but also creating the trap door at the bottom meaning established teams now look down with fear as the comfort of no relegation has now vacated the scene adding to the excitement. Only two originals clubs remain in Clachnacuddin and Forres Mechanics with Aberdeen side Banks o’ Dee being the latest to join after benefitting from the first ever playoff last season. A playoff in which bizarrely saw Fort William scratch the two-legged affair leading to their unchallenged relegation to the North Caledonian League with the Rechabites making the step up. Over the years the title has been won by eighteen clubs with Clachnacuddin and now defunct Caledonian sitting on eighteen engravings each with now League 2 side Elgin City the nearest on fourteen. In terms of current clubs, the next in line is Buckie Thistle on eleven (which in my own humble opinion believe will change to twelve this season). But Clach’s record looks to stand for a long time yet.
The Highland League been present in my live football viewing career for a long time. Almost as long as I have been hearing the clack of a turnstile in fact. This covers from when I was in childhood, into my teens and on into my twenties. In the early days I used to watch matches with my cousin Barry when Aberdeen were on the road, and we needed a fix on a Saturday afternoon. Fraserburgh, Cove Rangers, Huntly, Elgin City and Peterhead were visited with him. I have so many fond memories from these days, but some stand out more than others. For starters the glee of catching a fiver blowing along the terrace at Cove Rangers v Wick Academy at Allan Park in the 1995/96 season. That was big money when you were a pre-teen. The old bending down and pretending to tie my lace in case anyone saw me and claimed it was theirs worked a treat. It didn’t last long though as it was quickly spent on pies for us to enjoy while watching the home side run out 2 v 1 winners. Sticking on the Cove theme, watching Peterhead muller them 7 v 2 at the long-demolished Recreation Park in the Qualifying Cup in 1995 was something to behold. At the time this was the greatest footballing performance I had ever seen. Although I was young and still learning the ropes of fitba I could still understand that this performance was special. Another cracker was when Scottish Cup fever hit Bellslea Park in Fraserburgh when Whitehill Welfare were in town back in January 1996. In the low-ceilinged Crown Bar before the game in amongst the Whitehill support (complete with miner’s helmets) was an experience as I was only eleven at the time. I was not up to speed on the “away day” culture at this point given my lacking years on the planet to date. So far, my away day experiences were a handful with Aberdeen which usually included a sandwich in the car pre-match and sans boozer. But I loved it and these guys from Lothian were friendly, boisterous, and in a nutshell having a ball, the way it should be. They would have been in ecstasy come the final whistle after defeating the Broch 2 v 1 in this replay giving them a next round glamour tie v Celtic in the following round.
Further on in life Inverurie Locos were visited on numerous occasions as I branched out on my own once I was a bit older. Formartine United can be added into the equation too on a technicality as I actively followed them a fair bit in the ‘00s when a few of my pals were on their books at Junior grade before securing their place in the Highland League. As time went on there were just games here and there sporadically due to either playing for my club or watching Aberdeen. In my thirties I found myself watching more and more football as a neutral and the Highland League became the place to go. This inclusive of ticking off every ground in a calendar year which made my already immense love of the league grow tenfold as I got beneath the skin of it a bit more. This was via drinking with punters in the towns like Huntly, Banff, Keith and Nairn bars pregame, a corporate day at Rothes getting insider info from the committee, talking to the fans at games and generally taking in every detail I could and fully embracing my surroundings, Before I knew it, I was repeating grounds before the whole quest of ticking them all off had happened such had my enjoyment of the league grown.
Throughout my life I have been to over 250 grounds and many more than once, but some of the most frequented are HFL based. Christie Park, Harlaw Park, North Lodge, Bellslea Park, The Haughs and I can now say Glebe Park with Brechin too as it has been dropped in on at league status on many occasions due to its reasonably close location to my native Aberdeenshire. Nowadays the Highland League fill in gaps when at a loose end, times where I need a local(ish) game and when my son Jake wants a football fix last minute too. Every season these days the league is my most frequented come April. This is testament to my admiration for the set up.
Why the fascination? For starters the football is excellent to watch. A big help. It is never boring. It’s like a throwback at times too. The rare in the modern game 4-4-2 is deployed frequently. The tackling can be hard while sliding about on cut up quagmire parks. There are always goals when you watch. Nil-nil is like hens’ teeth. (I have never seen one in nye on 30 years watching). Then you have the old school vibe of the grounds. The aesthetically pleasing architecture such Kynoch Park in Keith, Fraserburgh’s 100-year-old main stand and Station Park in Nairn which is also good on the eye. But there are the settings of some of the grounds too. MacKessack Park, home of Rothes is positioned where you can see the Moray countryside in behind the whisky distilleries which tells a lot about the town. You have Princess Royal Park in Banff that looks over to neighbouring Macduff and its clock tower missing a clock, which is a brilliant sight and great history. Bellslea in Fraserburgh as well as having the wonderful 100-year-old stand has the South Church looming in behind the ground which takes a magnificent photo. Strathspey Thistle can have truly bonnie scenery when the surrounding hills of the Cairngorms sit with a dusting a snow in winter. Then there are the quirks, the famed slope at Harmsworth Park in Wick, the trains passing Banks o’ Dee, the wind machine (its own microclimate) at Victoria Park in Buckie, the other famed slope at the Locos, the hedge at Brechin and Braveheart statue which also resides at Glebe Park for that matter. Turriff United’s corner positioned stand is individual and some think bizarre, but I say it can also be placed into the wonderful architecture bracket. Then there are the Forres Mechanics steak pies which are a gift from the gods. The best I have indulged in anywhere in world football. It really is just a great place to view football in no matter which ground you pick and from the beginning has been worth every minute spent viewing for me.
If you don’t believe me, take the words of league legend and ex work colleague of mine Ian “Molby” Murray who played for Fraserburgh, Deveronvale and Buckie Thistle between 1990 and 2012 netting 218 goals en route to four league titles and eight other associated trophies. Still a fan today since being out of it for ten years and now living in England. In his own words the Highland League was “great to be a part of as it was competitive as many teams could win it” Even now competitive can be used to describe the league with nine teams having won it this century. Half of the total number ever. Molby also admired the “underrated standard” of the Highland game which I will back up and say it was the case back in his playing days but is still the case these days with some fantastic players on show with last season’s top scorer Scott Barbour, Dale Gillespie, and Andy MacAskill of Fraserburgh, Brora Rangers and Buckie Thistle respectively, with many more plying their trade throughout the sides. Players who could surely make a fist of a higher level. Then there was “competitive nature on the park which led to naughty battles”. This meaning having to “give as good as you got at times”. Ian also went on to say that the games were well worth their money given how the game is played. “It is cheap and affordable and 95% of the games will be fast paced and have goals galore”. On a personal level winning the four titles (two at both Deveronvale and Buckie Thistle) was a huge thrill and will live with him forever as will being chosen to captain the Scottish semi pro side is also up there. All of which would not have happened without his productive time spent in a league which he calls the “best in Scotland”.
The excitement of last season’s late title run in between Fraserburgh, and Buckie Thistle was brilliant to see unfold. This saw the latter go twenty-five matches unbeaten yet still come up short to the Broch. (Buckie have extended that unbeaten run into this season at the time of writing inclusive of a victory over Fraserburgh). Last season also included Brora Rangers and Brechin City up there challenging until the wheels came off around late February, two teams who will be looking to come back stronger. Now there is also more quality added with Banks o’ Dee in the league after replacing whipping boys Fort William. This term has the potential to eclipse the previous theatre which would be some going to say the least and I cannot wait to take more of it in. Whether it is a full day trip to Wick Academy or a short skip and a jump to local side Inverurie Locos I will continue to head to the Highland League in a neutral capacity. Everyone should follow suit and get to a game or two. Get following. The reason being simple, it is the best league on earth.
Brilliant read as always and most informative.
Look forward to the next one.
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