Football is without a doubt our national sport. Whether it’s listening on the radio, watching down the pub or actually attending a game there are few things that arouse the same kind of passion. Going on holiday may mean a temporary separation from your beloved home team but it is also an opportunity to investigate some of the truly special places that embody the spirit of the great game
A curious thing happened on the isle of Eriskay last year. FIFA, the world governing body for football filmed a local derby between the island’s No.1 team and local rivals Benbecula Juniors. In recognition of the island being one of the most special places to play football in the world, the film will be shown as part of an exhibit at the newly opened FIFA World Football Museum in Switzerland. The bumpy pitch on the machair beside the sea had until recently five corners, a rock sticking out of the ground and absolutely none of the facilities you may associate with professionalism but its unique location and special atmosphere more than compensate. A game here can be as competitive as any top flight encounter and the post-match celebrations, where both teams mingle alongside fans in the island pub Am Politician, can go on all night. There is no charge to watch a match but we would recommend a warm coat, the spectacular views, clear across the Atlantic, also mean spectators are less than sheltered when the occasional bad weather approaches. The islanders, being a hardy bunch, would have to be on the verge of being blown into the sea before they would even entertain the thought of cancelling a match. The living room at Beachcombers Cottage on South Uist has panoramic views across the causeway that takes you to Eriskay. It’s a fabulous spot to relax and from where it’s not hard to see just what impressed FIFA so much.
The Highland League was established in 1893 and must be one of the most closely contested in the country with 18 amateur teams competing across the region for top honours. This is amateur football at its finest, where passion and local pride are the motivating factors. One of the most northerly teams in the league Brora Rangers, known as The Cattachs play at Dudgeon Park in Brora. With a capacity of 2000 the atmosphere at the ground on match day is friendly and welcoming with a sizable proportion of the local town in attendance. This is where real local heroes are made, the goalscorer you cheer on is also the village plumber or school teacher, after a valiant performance on the pitch they may be the ones serving you at the local bar or driving your taxi home. It is indeed a world away from the millionaire celebrities from the upper echelons of professional sport. Farthingworth is just 20 minutes down the coast from Brora and is a quiet and peaceful contrast to the drama and intensity of the terraces. Sports fans are well catered for in this area with mountain biking, hiking and golf opportunities all within easy reach.
One of the biggest sporting events in the highlands is the annual El Kessocko, named after the Kessock Bridge and a homage to the Madrid derby. The bridge connects the towns of Inverness and Dingwall where the Highlands two Premier League teams Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle are based. Only 14 miles separate these two teams but the territorial rivalry is fierce and keenly contested. Both teams are professional and play in the top tier of the Scottish Football League, so represent the best opportunity for a visiting neutral to enjoy some of the finest of Scottish football. Going to see a game is surprisingly easy, tickets only rarely sell out in advance and are a bargain compared to the English Premiership. Parking and public transport are easy to organise and the customary half time pie and Bovril reassuringly old fashioned. If you are staying at The Burrow then Ross County would have to be your adopted holiday team as it is only a 10 minute drive from Dingwall. Alternatively from the shore outside Lilac Cottage on The Black Isle you can look over the water to the Caledonian Thistle stadium and on calm days hear the roar of the crowd. You could even cycle over the bridge to get to the game.
The next best thing to actually going to a game is watching it on TV. For many, the Sunday afternoon ritual involves a trip to the local pub but it is possible to catch a game on the telly while still soaking up the surrounds of your holiday home. Or even without going inside. The hot tub at Meall mo Chridhe comes with a built-in screen so must surely qualify as one of the most atmospheric locations to take in a match, especially in winter. How about watching some sea eagles as a spot of half time entertainment? If anything the location is so captivating it could be a distraction!