Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/17 posted by hidden europe on

'Ronaldo is certainly a big shot round here,' said the man on the slow train to Inverness. His comment distracted us from the scenery unfolding beyond the window as the train dropped down from Drumochter Summit towards the Spey Valley. We had to admit that we'd never appreciated that the talented captain of Portugal's national football team had Highland connections.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Ronaldo is certainly a big shot round here," said the man on the slow train to Inverness. His comment distracted us from the scenery unfolding beyond the window as the train dropped down from Drumochter Summit towards the Spey Valley. We had to admit that we'd never appreciated that the talented captain of Portugal's national football team had Highland connections.

The wrong Ronaldo! It turned out that there is a Scottish Ronaldo. The local hero who cuts a dash in the Spey Valley sporting scene is Ronald Ross, the only man ever to have scored more than a thousand goals in shinty.

"Yes, our Ronaldo certainly has a way with the caman," said our fellow traveller, referring to the double-sided stick which is used in shinty - a distinctive Highland game which bears similarities to field hockey. Shinty is big is the Spey Valley and before long we found ourselves alighting at Kingussie. Not that we had previously planned to stop there, but the story of Ronaldo had sparked our interest. So, in a very rare moment of celebrity tourism (for us at least), we found ourselves in the small Highland township that Ronaldo calls home.

Do Rugby fans make pilgrimages to Rugby? Do devotees of basketball go to Springfield in Massachusetts, the American town where the rules of basketball were first codified? We suspect not, but shinty fans should take time to visit Kingussie because it is a really fine spot - as good as they come. It was in 1893 in Kingussie that Scotland's shinty elite met in Victoria Hall to agree the rules of the game. We duly went and paid homage at the very spot where the die was cast. Then we walked out to The Dell to view the turf where the Scottish Ronaldo wielded his caman with such prowess.

"Shinty is more than just a game," said a woman walking her dog by the stadium. "It's a way of life - at least here in Kingussie."

But there's more to Kingussie than just shinty. We had a couple of hours just to wander, so we took time to admire the Courthouse and the old Temperance Hotel, neither of which were doing any trade.

We heard more about Ronaldo, of course, but we also discovered that the revered shinty player has a rival in the local hero stakes. The rival is Sandy Bennett, who sadly passed away five years ago. Sandy did all sorts of good things around Kingussie, but his real claim to fame was his work as a parking warden. This is not generally in Britain a profession held in great respect by the public - but Sandy was by all accounts an exception. He commands respect in Kingussie both for his vigilance and for his discretion. A couple of local women escorted us to the very spot where in the summer of 1993 Sandy placed a parking ticket on Sean Connery's car. Locals savoured the moment as the actor returned to his vehicle to find the ticket.

We asked in pubs and cafés about other notable figures in Kingussie life, but none really came close to matching Ronald Ross and Sandy Bennett. There was talk of how Robert Louis Stevenson may (or may not) have had some connection with the town. And we heard wonderful tales about Ackie Dunbar and his parrot and the way in which Peter Mackenzie was elevated by the King of Portugal to a dukedom.

So next time you are on the slow train through the Scottish Highlands, hop off at Kingussie, or indeed another of the country towns along the line. Our impromptu afternoon in Kingussie reminded us that every community has its repertoire of characters and stories.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.