Cricket By The Bandstand
It may be more widely known for sandy beaches, stunning views across the Moray Firth and a High Street so long that King James VI of Scotland once remarked that the people at either end spoke different languages, but the town of Nairn can lay claim to a sporting history a step beyond the world-renowned links golf courses to which the holidaymakers also flock in the summer season.
A founder member of the North of Scotland Cricket League in 1893 and participant in the original knock-out cup competition that marked the birth of the organisation that first summer, Nairn County Cricket Club was born out of a tradition of cricket in the town predating the formation of NoSCA by some fifty years. And as cricket in Nairn moves towards its second century the inheritors of this grand old club are ensuring that it remains at the centre of this close-knit Highland community.
Cricket goes back a long way in this part of the world. The Nairnshire Telegraph first mentions the sport in 1843 and twelve years later records in its pages a match between Nairn and a team from Inverness.
The edition of June 25th 1856 describes uniformed cricketers in a ‘long white and blue striped jacket, with cap to match, both trimmed with red cloth’ playing on the Links, together with a note that ‘an application from the Cricket Club requesting leave to level a portion of the Links in order to form a proper playing ground’ had met with approval from the Town Council.
‘The manly and invigorating exercise of Cricket playing appears to be increasing in repute here,’ continues the column. ‘A number of juvenile clubs have [also] procured the necessary implements required for the game…so that the Links present nightly a very animated appearance.’
Kim Neill, Club Chair and driving force behind the present-day Nairn County, takes up the story.
“Nairn County was formed from two local clubs, Nairn Union and the Mechanics Club,” she said. “There were originally several cricket pitches too, one on the east side of the Links – where the football pitch is now – one at Balmakeith and another at the Meggat.
“In 1874 the clubs met and took the decision to merge and adopt the name Nairn County. The club settled on the Links and we have called it home ever since.”
Today, around 175 years after those first reports, cricket continues to thrive.
“We have the widest possible range of people playing cricket in Nairn,”explained Neill.
“We have mini-cricket for boys and girls and ladies cricket as well. I believe we are the first club in Scotland to be involved in the ECB’s Table Cricket programme, too, and we deliver that in schools for disability in Nairn, Inverness, Dingwall and Tain. And then we have our First and Reserve XIs.
“We have always had a mix of ages playing in our senior teams,” she continued. “In 2016 we won the Reserve League with a side that had an average age of just under twenty, and that was including a couple of ‘oldies’ who brought that average up considerably. Otherwise we had players in that side who were twelve, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…[our captain] Alex Green was nineteen when we won the title.
“If you look at the first team now most have come up through our junior ranks. It’s good to get new blood in from elsewhere too, of course, and as long as we can keep doing that as well as bringing through the juniors the club will continue to grow.”
Alongside Northern Counties, Forres St. Lawrence and Elgin, Nairn County is one of four founder members still playing in the league which replaced the original cup competition in 1896. After winning their first Senior League title in 1906 Nairn County has added a further thirteen to their roll of honour as well as three Senior Knock-Out Cups.
The inter-war years proved to be a time of particular success as Nairn County claimed nine league titles along with the first-ever Knock-Out Cup in 1933. That cricket flourished beyond the First XI, too, is indicated by an intriguing piece of evidence.
Barely four years after a Scottish women’s team had faced England in the first ever women’s international a team representing Nairn was posing for a photograph. Relaxed and smiling in their pristine whites, the names of the ten-strong ‘Nairn Ladies Cricket Team, September 1936’ are carefully listed – minus that of the caption writer herself – but, tantalisingly, neither occasion nor opposition is noted.
Whether this was a team fulfilling regular fixtures or, as is perhaps more likely, one created for a one-off match of some description the photograph nevertheless adds a fascinating new layer to the history of Nairn’s most successful period.
Since those golden days, though, success has been more elusive for Nairn County. With no Senior League title since 1971 or Knock-Out Cup after 1991 the Reserve League victory of 2016 finally ended what has been a barren run. First XI Captain Iain MacLeod, however, is hopeful that the taste of success may prove to be the catalyst in bringing about a more lasting change in fortune.
“The Reserve League win was the first time in twenty-eight years that we had won a league,” he said. “We’d won cups before but to go a whole league season pretty much unbeaten was a great achievement.
“Hopefully as we go forward we can build on that success,” he continued. “We have a good group of young players in Nairn supported by some more experienced heads and we will only get better as they get more experienced.
“Within the team there are those who are really important to us but we’re not so much about individuals at Nairn. We’re a good team who play well together and that’s maybe what’s most important in this game.”
For MacLeod, like so many in Nairn a one-club man, the cricket bug was to bite in his teenage years.
“I’ve lived in Nairn all my life but I only started playing cricket when I was thirteen or so,” he said. “I wasn’t really into cricket before then, I was football mad, but one of my mates got me to come down one day and I’ve been here ever since.
“When I first started there wasn’t any junior set-up at the club at all, you pretty much went straight into the first team. There was obviously a wee bit of softball training first but as I was thirteen I was playing with the adults pretty quickly, going along on a Saturday to make up the numbers.
“It was sink or swim but I really enjoyed it and it was a great way to learn the game.”
Things are very different today, however.
“I grew up in South Africa and played national netball and veterans national tennis there,” said Neill. “When I first came here there was no cricket at all for the juniors. My two sons and a few other boys were left playing on the sidelines while the seniors trained. It wasn’t good so I set about changing it.
“I had coached netball in South Africa over the years so the coaching itself wasn’t a problem, it was just the technique of cricket that I had to learn. I got my Level 2 coaching certificate in 2010 and have gone on from there.”
Kim Neill’s commitment to the development of cricket in Nairn was recognised in 2012 with a NoSCA Lifetime Achievement Award for services to cricket in the north of Scotland. The fruits of her work have brought honours for others, too, with three players – Adrian Neill, Steven Neill and Alex Green – claiming the NoSCA Young Player of the Year Award since 2012.
“My husband Magnus is a qualified umpire and three years ago I got my Level 1 Umpires qualification too,” Neill added.
“I’m the only active lady umpire in the north of Scotland. No-one tends to fight with me but I’m sure Magnus will be the first to let me know when I get it horribly wrong!”
Cricket in Nairn is also benefitting from the very newest of volunteering schemes. Reserve XI Captain Alex Green is part of an initial intake of fourteen young people selected to complete the Community Achievement Award, an SCQF accredited course designed to support, recognise and certify learning through volunteering.
Developed by Cricket Scotland in partnership with Glasgow Kelvin College and ScotRail, the programme encourages young volunteers to develop as individuals as well as build their understanding of the process and benefits of contributing to their community.
“Being involved in the Award has really helped my preparation,” said Green. “I’m now much more confident in planning and delivering a session in front of twenty or thirty kids. I want to make this a career for myself eventually and this is an amazing stepping stone towards that.”
Each participant in the course is asked to identify key areas for development, and Green is excited to see that his early work is already bearing fruit.
“My first aim is to bring younger players into the club,” he continued. “I’m going into four local primary schools to build links with the cricket club and that’s really paying dividends already.
“Last year we had seven juniors signed up. This year we have twenty-six. There’s a real buzz which is brilliant as you can never have too many young people involved in the game.”
A simple philosophy underpins his approach to coaching.
“Above all it’s about making sure everyone is having fun,” said Green. “I developed a passion for cricket because my coach made it fun for me and that’s what I try to do too. It doesn’t matter so much to be technically correct – if you can hit the ball thirty yards then you can hit the ball thirty yards!”
Green is also at the forefront in building a fully inclusive Nairn County.
“On the back of the success of Scotland’s women we’re working really hard to increase the number of girls playing cricket,” he said.
“We have introduced a women’s team and a girls’ team to represent Nairn County as well. We want to make sure that we get as many people as possible playing here.”
The ladies of 1936 would surely approve.
And in a country of unrivalled scenery Nairn County will continue to play against perhaps the most spectacular backdrop of all. With views across the Moray Firth towards the Black Isle and a unique feature in the cast-iron form of the Wallace Bandstand, it is little surprise that the Links has been described as the most picturesque cricket ground in all of Scotland.
“[Playing at the Links] is brilliant when the sun is shining, it’s one of the best grounds you could wish for,” said Iain MacLeod.
“I’ll be honest, when it’s windy and cold it’s maybe a bit different! But on a nice day you can’t beat the Links for playing or watching a game of cricket.”
Nairn is typical of so many Scottish towns. Golf may be most visible, football most spoken about, but scratch just a little beneath the surface and you will usually find cricket. Individual fortunes may ebb and flow but driven by dedicated volunteers and players the grassroots game continues to thrive.
“Our clubs help unite their towns and villages,” said National Coach Grant Bradburn. “They are a hub to bind people together and are often the reason that people interact in a lot of our communities. We really need to protect that.”
And in such hands as those at Nairn County, the future looks secure indeed.