The Kingdom of the Isles: My Initial Delve Into Western Isles Football

Introduction

For previous blogs on island football, find the links below:

As I have mentioned in previous blogs on this site, I am fascinated with football clubs and leagues that are played on islands. Having naturally been somewhat isolated from the football scene on the mainland, I am always interested to see what the football culture is like on such islands, and which teams are the strongest in their respective island leagues.

In this edition of the island series, I am venturing up to Britain’s far north-western frontier, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the land (sometimes rather fiercely), and their most western neighbour is Canada or America on the opposite side of the vast body of water. A group of islands off the coast of Scotland which seem fascinating, almost mythical to me, with their unique blend of Viking history and Celtic heritage. A group of islands which I always notice on the weather maps (usually covered in rain clouds) but for which I don’t know much about, and an area of Great Britain where English is not the dominant language.

It’s time to look at the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles…

 

Na h-Eileanan an Iar

The Western Isles, the Outer Hebrides or Na h-Eileanan an Iar (in Scottish Gaelic) are an island chain located off the north-western coast of Scotland. There are about 70 islands which form the Outer Hebrides, although only 15 of them are inhabited, culminating in a total population of around 28,000 people living on the Western Isles. The largest island is Lewis and Harris (often referred to as separate islands but are one island), with the Lewis part the most populous. The islands’ capital, Stornoway / Steòrnabhagh, is located on the eastern coast of Lewis and is home to around 8,000 people.

The islands have a unique history in comparison with the majority of the mainland of Scotland. Along with the Inner Hebrides and the Isle of Man, they were colonised and owned by the Norse Vikings, to make up the Suðr-eyjar (South Isles), which became part of the Norse vassal Kingdom of the Isles (the Orkneys and Shetlands were known as the Norðr-eyjar or North Isles of the Kingdom). Norse settlement can be clearly identified in the place names on the islands, which are typically Viking in origin.

After being yielded to the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266 in the Treaty of Perth, the Norse speaking hierarchy were gradually replaced by Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) speaking clans from the Highlands. This has resulted in the islands being historically a very strong centre for the language, with the majority of the population being able to speak or understand Gaelic (over 50% on every inhabited island).

1000px-Western_Isles_Council_Flag.svg
The flag of the Western Isles.

Even though it is considered part of Scotland, and thus under the auspices of the Scottish Football Association (SFA), the Western Isles do have a representative football team for the islands. The side is not affiliated with FIFA or UEFA, or even CONIFA (although they would surely be an acceptable member should they wish to join CONIFA in the future) but play in the Island Games football tournaments (and have done since 2005). Most players selected in these squads either play in the northern Lewis and Harris Football League or the southern Uist & Barra Football League, and it’s these leagues which I shall focus on.

 

 

Lewis & Harris Football League

Brief History & Structure

Lewis & Harris FA Logo

The Lewis and Harris League is controlled by the regional Lewis & Harris Football Association, which organises football on the island of Lewis and Harris – the largest island of the Outer Hebridean archipelago. Like other northern amateur leagues, the competition follows a summer schedule rather than the traditional winter schedule that the majority of Scotland follows, meaning the league is completed within a calendar year.

Ness FCThe league started back in 1980, with Ness being the first champions of the Lewis & Harris Football League. Historically, Ness (situated at the most northern point of the island) are the most successful team in the league’s history having won the league 12 times and runners-up 5 times. Lochs are the second-most successful side, having won the league 9 times and finished runners-up 4 times, whilst Point (based to the east of Stornoway Airport) have won the Lewis & Harris League 8 times, and finished runners-up 9 times.

Back have been the unluckiest team having finished as runners-up a league high of 10 times (although they have won 2 leagues), finishing second on seven occasions between 2003 and 2012. The most recent new champions have been Carloway, who won the first of their two titles in 2013, and Westside who claimed their first league title in 2014.

  • 12 titles: Ness
  • 9 titles: Lochs
  • 8 titles: Point
  • 3 titles: Stornoway Athletic
  • 2 titles: Back, Harris, Westside & Carloway

Only one of the current teams in the league have yet to win the league, with Stornoway United still awaiting their first title at the time of writing.

Currently the league has nine teams competing within it, with no promotion or relegation available, meaning it is a stand alone league within the Scottish football pyramid. Each team plays each other home and away throughout the season resulting in the season ending with 16 league games played for each team.

There are a number of cup competitions that all the teams play for (with the exception of the Eilean Fhraoich Cup) throughout the season, these are:

  • Acres Boys Club (ABC) Cup – The first domestic cup of the season.
  • Co-op Cup – An all-Western Isles cup which includes teams from the Uist & Barra League.
  • Eilean Fhraoich Cup – A unique regional cup competition where players represent the village they or their parents were born in, or they currently live in. It’s the villages/parishes which take part in this cup rather than the L&H League teams.
  • Jock Stein Cup – The second domestic cup of the season.
  • Moldova Lewis Cup – The third domestic cup of the season.

In addition, teams also compete within the Highland Amateur Cup, although that will be explained further in the blog.

 

2019 Lewis & Harris League

2019 Lewis & Harris League
The 2019 Lewis & Harris League table. [IMAGE: Lewis & Harris FA Website]

Westside FCBarvas-based Westside are also the league’s defending champions, having won the league on the tightest of margins. Both Westside and Point finished the 16-game season tied on 40 points, with Point having an unbeaten season, the best attack and defence, and thus a better goal difference than Westside. However the title would be decided on a playoff match, which was played at the neutral venue of Creagan Dubh in Lochs. Despite their unbeaten league season, Point would succumb to their first defeat of the year in their final match, losing 1-2 to Westside. Striker Luke MacKay and winger Martainn Shields scored the crucial goals to hand the title to the westerners.

Despite their illustrious history in the league, Ness finished bottom of the table, with just nine points. They finished a point behind the league’s worst goalscorers in Stornoway Athletic, whilst Stornoway United had the most porous defence having conceded 60 goals from their 16 league games.

The individual awards for the season were presented to the following players:

  • Top Goalscorer: Fraser MacLeod (Carloway) – 35 goals
  • Player of the Year: Ali ‘Barvas’ MacLeod (Westside)
  • Goalkeeper of the Year: Jack MacLennan (United)
  • Young Player of the Year: Stevie Much (Back)

 

These are the teams who played in the 2019 season of the Lewis & Harris League:

Lewis & Harris Football Map
The locations of the 2019 L&H League teams on Lewis and Harris.
  • Back FC
  • Carloway FC
  • Harris FC
  • Lochs FC
  • Ness FC
  • Point FC
  • Stornoway Athletic
  • Stornoway United
  • Westside FC

 

Cup Competitions

In the first cup final of the season, Lochs met Westside in the ABC Cup final, in a repeat of the previous year’s final (where Lochs won 3-1 on that occasion). Lochs were looking for their ninth ABC Cup, whilst Westside were appearing in their fourth ABC final in a row. In the end, goals from Scott Graham and Martainn Shields earned Westside the win, to claim their third ABC Cup in their history. It would be the start of a good year for the Siarachs!

Highlights of the final (as shown on Island Footie YouTube account):

 

Lochs reached another cup final, this time taking on Stornoway Athletic in the final of the Jock Stein Cup. Athletic have won the cup on three occasions (the last time in 2002) whilst Lochs won it nine times (last time in 2014). Unfortunately for Lochs, they would lose a second cup final as Athletic won the cup by a comprehensive scoreline of 4-0. Goals from Ross MacRae, Donnie MacLeod, and a Darren Stewart brace giving the Aths the trophy.

Back met Point in the final of the Eilean Fhraoich Cup at Barvas, with first half goals from Euan Anderson and Stevie Mutch sealing the trophy for the village of Back, and winning the tie 2-0.

Point met Westside in the final of the Moldova Lewis Cup at Lochs’ ground. Westside claimed their second cup trophy of the season, as they won the tie 3-1. Two goals from Ali MacLeod and a Luke MacKay goal sealing the win for Westside, whilst Elliot Ruddal got the consolation for Point.

The two sides would meet again, this time in the Co-op final. Both sides had won the trophy on four different occasions, with Point last winning it in 2005, and Westside in 2017. This cup final would prove a tight affair with both teams scoring a goal within the 90 minutes, resulting in the tie going straight to penalties. In the end, Point kept their nerve in the spot-kicks and gained some retribution for their Moldova Lewis Cup defeat, by winning the Co-op Cup 5-3 on penalties, to stop Westside winning a cup treble.

 

Lewis & Harris Representative Team

Lewis & Harris FC LogoA select team that contains players who play in the Lewis and Harris League, and represents the league, periodically enters cup competitions that are organised by the North Caledonian FA.

The select side has had some success in the past, the highlight being when they won the 2014-15 North Caledonian Cup, an annual cup competition between football clubs across the Highlands and Islands of northern Scotland, which started in the 1887-88 season. Lewis & Harris FC became the first Western Isles side to win the old cup when they defeated Golspie Sutherland (the then champions of the North Caledonian League) 1-0 at Alness. The same two teams returned to the same venue for the final of the North Caledonian Cup for the following season. Sadly the Islanders were unable to successfully defend their trophy as Golspie Sutherland gained some revenge by winning the final 4-2.

North Caledonian FA LogoThe club also made it to the final of the 2017-18 Football Times Cup, another cup competition organised by the North Caledonian FA. They managed to beat Elgin City U20, Golspie Sutherland and Saint Duthus on the way to the final. Alas, they would be defeated by the Orkney FC side, with Thorfinn Stout and Aiden Drever scoring in the final twenty minutes of the game to win the cup for the northerners.

In the 2019-20 editions of the competitions, Lewis & Harris finished bottom of the Southern Section of the Football Times Cup. Despite starting with a 1-1 away draw with Inverness Athletic, losses to St. Duthus and Invergordon ended their interest in the competition. They were also knocked out of the Jock MacKay Cup in the first round, 1-3 by the eventual cup winners Orkney FC.

2019-20 Football Times Cup Group Stage
The 2019-20 Football Times Cup group stage. [IMAGE: North Caledonian FA Website]

 

Uist & Barra Football League

 

Brief History & Structure

[NOTE: Sadly information on the history of this league was not as forthcoming as the H&L League, so this is the most I could find currently]

Uist & Barra FA LogoThe Uist and Barra League is controlled by the regional Uist & Barra AFA, which organises football on the southern islands of the Outer Hebridean archipelago, such as North Uist, South Uist, Barra, etc. Like its northern league counterpart, the competition also follows a summer schedule rather than the traditional winter schedule.

There are currently six teams who compete in the Uist & Barra League, with each club playing each other league team home and away throughout the year. This results in each team finishing the season having played ten league games. As with the Lewis and Harris League, it is a stand alone league with no promotion or relegation from it.

The league gained international media attention when Eriskay FC’s ground, Cnoc na Monadh, was named as one of FIFA’s eight choices for the world’s most unique grounds, having a superb backdrop of the rocky island and the Hebridean Sea.

Below is a list of the number of league titles clubs within the Uist & Barra League (that I could find) have won during their history:

  • 16 titles: Southend FC
  • 6 titles: Iochdar Saints

There are three main domestic cups that U&BL teams play throughout the season:

  • Summer Cup – The main cup competition for the league.
  • Billy MacNeil Cup – A tournament style cup competition with 2 groups of three teams, with the group winners facing each other in the final. Teams play each other home and away in the groups.
  • Co-op Cup – A cup competition which is competed with teams from the Lewis & Harris League. It could be considered the ‘Western Isles Cup’.

Uist & Barra League teams also compete within the Highland Amateur Cup, although that will be explained further in the blog.

 

2019 Uist and Barra League

2019 Uist & Barra League
The 2019 Uist & Barra League table. [IMAGE: Iochdar Saints’ Website]

The 2019 Uist and Barra League would another tightly fought campaign, with the battle going down to the very last game of the season. With one game remaining of the season, Iochdar Saints and Barra were locked on 24 points for the title, however their final game was against each other. A draw would send it into a playoff (as seen in the Lewis & Harris League) but a win for either side would clinch the title. In the end, it was the home side who claimed victory with the Saints winning the tie 2-1, to clinch the South Uist side’s sixth league title in nine years. Defender Harry Luney and midfielder Ally Downie got the crucial goals for the new league champions, whilst Ryan Nicholson got the consolation.

The 2018 league champions, Barra, would finish three points behind in the runners-up spot, although would have the best attack in the league by scoring 47 goals, and have the best goal difference, although Iochdar had the best defence, conceding just 17 goals. Southend finished in third position, nine points behind Barra, whilst Eriskay and Benbecula were separated by a point in fourth and fifth positions.

Sadly for North Uist United, it would be an awful season for them in the league. 10 league games played, 10 defeats, 11 goals scored, 50 goals conceded and no points earned. Surely the next season can get better for United??

The individual awards from the season were awarded to the following players:

  • Top Goalscorer: Dominic MacAulay (Eriskay)
  • Player of the Year: Dominic MacAulay (Eriskay)
  • Young Player of the Year: Ryan Nicholson (Barra)

These are the teams who played in the 2019 edition of the Uist & Barra FA League:

Uist & Barra Football Map
The locations of the 2019 Uist and Barra League teams in the southern section of the Western Isles.
  • Barra FC
  • Benbecula FC
  • Eriskay FC
  • Iochdar Saints
  • North Uist United
  • Southend FC

 

Cup Competitions

The Summer Cup final culminated in a match between Southend and the 2018 Summer Cup winners, Barra. Surprisingly it would be Southend who won the game 2-0 with goals from Daniel MacDonald and Eddie Fitzgibbon.

The Billy MacNeil Cup final was played between Iochdar Saints (Group A winners) and Benbecula (Group B winners). In the end, the Saints won the cup 3-2, to lift the trophy for the fourth time in their history (their first since 2014), and ensure 2019 was a double-winning season for them.

In the Co-op Cup, only half of the Uist and Barra League sides made it past the First Round, and none of them qualified for the semi-finals. Benbecula were the closest to qualifying for the last four, losing just by one goal in a 1-2 defeat at Lochs.

Co-op Cup First Round

Carloway 4 – 1 Eriskay
Barra 3 – 1 Back
Iochdar Saints 2 – 3 Lochs
Point 8 – 1 North Uist United
Ness 2 – 3 Southend
Benbecula 5 – 3 Stornoway United

Co-op Cup Quarter Finals

Barra 0 – 3 Stornoway Athletic (Barra withdrew due to travel issues, awarding Athletic a 3-0 victory)
Lochs 2 – 1 Benbecula
Southend 2 – 8 Westside

 

 

Highland Amateur Cup

 

Brief Description

SAFA LogoThe Highland Amateur Cup is an annual football cup competition run by the Highland Executive branch of the Scottish Amateur Football Association. All teams that are affiliated to Highland Associations are eligible to enter the cup competition. Therefore this competition covers one of the largest geographical areas for any district amateur cup competition in Scotland.

Currently, the affiliated Football Associations to the Highland Amateur Cup are:

  • Caithness AFA
  • North West Sutherland AFA
  • Inverness and District FA
  • Skye & Lochalsh AFA
  • Lewis & Harris FA
  • Uist & Barra AFA
  • Orkney AFA

All Shetland FA clubs are eligible to take part, but due to the travel distances clubs must undertake, they have rarely entered the competition.

 

Western Isles’ History in the Competition

Ness FCAlthough the competition started in 1978, it wasn’t until the 1984 edition of the tournament when teams from the Western Isles were allowed to enter. This debut appearance culminated in Ness‘ cup-run to the final, finishing with a 4–1 victory over Bishopmill Villa at Victoria Park, Dingwall (home of Ross County) to become the first Western Isle team to win the cup competition.. Ness have since won the competition on three other occasions; 1991, 1992 and 1995, meaning they are the most successful Western Isle team in the competition.

Point FCThree other Lewis & Harris Football League teams have won the cup, with Point winning it in 1994, Lochs claiming it twice in 2003 and 2005, with Back winning the trophy in between Lochs’ two triumphs. Back were also runners-up in 2011, whilst Stornoway Athletic reached the final in 1990 and 2003 (losing in the only all-Western Isle final). The last Lewis & Harris team to reach the final of the Highland Amateur Cup was Carloway in 2014, but they lost 1-2 to Inverness & District FA team, Avoch, in the final.

Southend FCOnly one Uist & Barra League side has reached the final of the Highland Amateur Cup, with Southend reaching the final two in the 1993 tournament. Sadly they lost 2-6 to Pentland United, in one of the Caithness AFA side’s record eight titles.

 

2019 Results

In the 2019 edition of the Highland Amateur Cup, only three Western Isles clubs made it as far as the Third Round of the competition, but sadly none got any further than that. Ness had to pull out of the competition, whilst Point lost 0-2 to Wick Groats. Stornoway Athletic were the closest Western Isles team to progress to the next round, when they took Sleat & Strath to extra time. Sadly they would suffer defeat to the Isle of Skye-based team, losing 1-2 after 120 minutes of play.

Barra FCThe best performing Uist & Barra League side were Barra FC, who managed to defeat Eriskay 3-0 to reach the Second Round of the cup competition. Sadly they got no further when they were heavily defeated 0-8 by Wick Groats, the team who would go on to win the cup outright.

3rd Round

Avoch w/o Ness – Ness pulled out of the tournament allowing Avoch a bye into the next round.
Stornoway Athletic 1 – 2 Sleat & Strath (AET)
Point 0 – 2 Wick Groats

2nd Round

Carloway 1 – 6 Whitedale
Stornoway Athletic 2 – 0 Kyleakin
Helmsdale United 1 – 3 Ness
Barra 0 – 8 Wick Groats
Point 7 – 1 Watten

First Round

Carloway 3 – 3 Back (4 – 2 Pens)
Stornoway United 2 – 4 Ness
Eriskay 0 – 3 Barra
Southend 1 – 2 Point
Stornoway Athletic 3 – 0 Benbecula

Preliminary Round

Carloway 4 – 1 Lochs
Benbecula 2 – 1 Iochdar Saints (AET)
Stornoway United 2 – 1 Westside

 

 

2019 Inter Games Football Tournament

2019 Inter Games LogoAll the islands of the Western Isles normally compete in a combined representative team the bi-annual Island Games multi-sport event, which is competed for by teams from the various islands around the world. Normally the football tournament is an integral part of the Island Games schedule, however due to the 2019 Island Games’ host, Gibraltar, not having enough football pitches to host the football tournament, it was not added to the official Games. Despite this problem, because the football tournaments are one the most popular sports at the games, it was decided to hold the matches elsewhere but with the results not being part of the official Island Games medal tally.

It was decided that the Welsh island of Ynys Môn / Anglesey would host the ‘Inter Games Football Tournament’ in June 2019, and so the Western Isles sent across male and female representative teams to compete in the tournament.

 

Women’s Team

Western Isles Sports TeamThe Western Isles sent a women’s team to the tournament – one of six teams who did send a women’s team. They were placed in Group A of the tournament alongside the hosts Ynys Môn and the Norwegian island of Hitra. The group would be tightly contested with only goal difference making the difference in the end.

They started their campaign with a 1-3 defeat to Anglesey, with Beth MacLeod getting the only goal for the Westerners in the 60th minute. Despite the loss to Ynys Môn, the hosts lost to Hitra in the next group game, meaning that if the Western Isles beat Hitra comfortably, they could potentially win the group. In the end, they did beat Hitra by just a solitary goal coming from Mary MacLeod. As a result, despite all three teams finishing on three points a piece, Western Isles finished bottom of the group as a result of having the worst goal difference of the teams.

2019 Inter Games Football Tournament - Women's Group A
Women’s Group A of the 2019 Inter Games Football Tournament. [IMAGE: Wikipedia]

Finishing bottom meant they faced Gibraltar (who finished bottom of Group B) in the fifth-placed playoff. They finished their tournament off in style by beating their opponents a comfortable 5-0. Goals from Beth MacLeod, Shana MacPhail, Maryam Lee, Mary MacLeod and Ann-Louise Stewart confirmed the Western Isles’ finish in fifth position.

 

Men’s Team

The Western Isles’ men’s team were placed in the very difficult Group A, alongside the hosts Ynys Môn, Orkney and one of the tournament favourites in Jersey. They started their campaign brightly, taking a 1-0 lead against Ynys Môn through a Robert Shirkie goal. However two second half goals were conceded within 11 minutes to condemn the Western Isles to an opening day defeat. Sadly things would get a lot worse in the next game, as they were thrashed 0-7 by the Jersey team to ensure they would not be progressing to the semi-finals.

In their final group game, they faced their fellow historical Norse islanders in Orkney, but alas this Scottish derby would end in defeat for the Western Isles, losing 1-2 to Orkney. Robert Shirkie getting the only goal for the side, as they finished bottom of Group A with three defeats and zero points earned.

2019 Inter Games - Group A Men
Group A of the 2019 Inter Games Football Tournament [IMAGE: Wikipedia]

This group finish led them to the ninth-placed playoff match, where they faced the mid-Atlantic side of Saint Helena, who had finished bottom of Group C. In their final game of the tournament, they finally managed some success when they claimed their first win of the tournament, although it would be a close game. Eachainn Miller gave the Western Isles a very early lead in the second minute, before Rico Benjamin equalised early in the second half. It was looking as if the game would go to a penalty shootout before Shirkie scored his third goal of the tournament, with four minutes to go in the game, to give the Western Isles a hard-fought 2-1 victory to finish ninth in the tournament.

 

 

Conclusion

A massive thank you for reading my blog on football on the Western Isles. It was a little difficult trying to find some information on the islands’ leagues, especially trying to find historical information on the Uist and Barra League, such as past winners, when the league was created etc. If any of your readers spot any errors in the information, or know where I can find such information, please let me know and I’ll update the information above accordingly.

Hopefully by reading this blog, it will encourage you to venture across there either on the aeroplane or the ferry to the Western Isles and check out their superb football leagues, and also see what FIFA were on about with Eriskay’s ground. Certainly, researching and writing this blog has made me want to visit the Outer Hebrides in the near future, and catch some league football on one of the islands there. Also a perfect opportunity to catch some summer football in the years ahead!

If you have any comments on football on the Western Isles, experiences playing, or watching games there, or even if you follow a specific team from the islands, I would love to read about them. Either mention them below in the comments box, send a tweet on Twitter to @The94thMin or put it on my Facebook Page, it would be great to hear your comments.

Mòran taing!

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