Take me to the Islands

Chris Marshall
9 min readAug 16, 2023

This feature was first comissioned for Issue 27 of Nutmeg Magazine published in March 2023 you can subscribe to Nutmeg here.

As a boy I was spellbound by the Highlands & Islands League, and travelled huge distances to games — in my imagination.

Fivepenny Machair, Ness FC (April 2023)

AFC Portree 3–1 South Uist: a table-topping clash in the Highlands and Islands Premier Division that goes the way of the defending champions, the Skye Road Bridge allowing for easy access to the footballing potential of a largely untapped north-west coast.

Further down the table and it’s honours even in the Inner Hebridean derby, viewed by many as the fiercest rivalry across both divisions — Tiree and Coll share four goals in front of a packed Beach Park. More scores are coming in. Benbecula 4–2 Tarbert Town, the Bens continuing to punch well above their weight as they go in search of a second consecutive top-three finish.

Dropping down to the second tier, Brodick Town’s woes are continuing. A 7–0 defeat at home to North Uist leaves the perennial strugglers rooted to the bottom. Unlike the benefits the reigning champions feel in the north, it turns out that being closest to Scottish football’s west coast heartlands is a unique and surprising disadvantage.

The Highlands and Islands League (or the H&I, as it would be shortened to on vidiprinters) was not only eclectic for its reach — a near 1,000 mile midweek trip for Lerwick Town to face Barra was not unheard of — but also for the setting in which games were contested.

There was the sleek and modern 18,000-capacity Stornoway Arena, the first ever all-seater stadium built for Highlands and Islands League play. Fully covered, it also had undersoil heating that quelled the long, brutal winters that battered the shore the stadium was located on and unsurpris- ingly the Stornoway Black Pudding Pie was worth a trip all on its own.

Homes weren’t all new and shiny though. The view across Tobermory
bay from FC Mull’s well-weathered but quaint Fisherman’s Park was iconic, one of the first sights to welcome your eyes as ferries unpacked their passengers. Railway sleepers provided the terrace on which fans would watch the beauti- ful game, broken down barrels and the upturned bows of boats providing the best vantage points if you were willing to scarper up the green banks just a little further. The remote field of Islay FC was rarely forgotten, the smell of burning peat wafting through each nostril as you stood upon the Distillers’ giant open terrace, cavernous but homely. There was also the novelty of seeing the homes of second tier minnows Rum and Eigg across the sea on a warm, clear day, a sight as captivating as the Northern Lights.

Two divisions, 20 teams. And all the figment of a young fan’s sprawling imagi- nation fuelled by a love of football and tracing their finger across the contours of a good map. The events of the Highlands and Islands League were almost always contested on my bedroom or living room floor, papers sprawled across the carpet like a highly caffeinated detective trying to crack their final case, countless seasons populated with promotion celebrations and relegation heartbreak. Goalscoring sensations and the odd exotic summer signing and of course those times that the underdog would finally have their day. All scribbled on dog-eared narrow-ruled paper over the course of one long mid- 1990s summer.

The inaugural season is a bit of a blur. The basics were dealt with first of all. Each team needed a name and from there began the creation of meticulous potted histories featuring nicknames, stadiums, managers and honour rolls that up until that day had never existed. In a process far simpler than the unnecessarily gregarious and convoluted one that “big football” goes through every time a draw has to be made, the placement of teams for the inaugural season was decided by a random lotto. Folded up pieces of paper were placed in a bucket-shaped blue plastic stilt with white strings attached. Once turned upside down, it was the perfect vessel for deciding the fate of the 20 sides that would provide a summer’s worth of entertainment.

Most results were decided on paper and input into a matrix but when it came to the destination of titles and cup trophies, something far more grandiose would be required. It would be time to get the Subbuteo out, a ceremony all in itself as the big plywood board used to keep the surface fast and true would be pulled out from behind the couch and the green baize run over with a steam iron, deploy- ing the same precision as a groundsman lining his pitch on a matchday. If the iron leaked, as it was prone to do, then the damp splodges that appeared would confirm that the island weather had taken a bad turn for finals day.

The stands would be sculpted in Lego, each terrace unique to the team or occasion. If I had been feeling particu- larly determined, then time would be spent spelling out the name of the home side brick-by-brick in the terraces. Handwritten cards would slot into the black scoreboard, the mechanism that turned 0s into 1s and 1s into 2s making a satisfying click each time the ball was flicked into the top corner. In a complete detour from the island imagery I had built up, a USA ’94 themed ball and net set was always used on these occasions. A splash of red, white and blue pomp and ceremony which to this day still reminds me of Diana Ross’ infamous miss during that World Cup’s opening ceremony. Much like hers, my goals would only break once, the bottom corner stanchion fudged back together with superglue and a bit of love.

Club colours would often be decided by the 11 little plastic men that I would have at my disposal. Wolverhampton Wander- ers’ orange and black pinstripe would soon be the colours of Tarbert Town, and AFC Portree would naturally share the sky-blue strip of Manchester City and Argentine side Club Atlético Belgrano. Sometimes I would rope another family member or friend into the contest but most of the time I was quite happy to play both sides.

I remember returning to school following the holidays and during a round of “show and tell” — where other children talked about their holidays — I proudly presented my Highland and Islands League documentation. A decade’s worth of fictional football-related archives curated over an action-packed summer. In what would prove to be an act of enablement in relation to my future direction from my teacher, a couple of pages ended up on the wall alongside more usual summer souvenirs from my classmates

As I’ve grown older, I’ve thought about that league a lot, an unwitting piece of escapism forged through a love of football and exploration and so, when the door to the world was pushed just a little ajar in the summer of 2021, I decided it was time to make the pilgrimage north to take in the footballing landscapes of my child- hood imagination.

Of course, by now that fantasy of youth had to some degree at least been tempered by reality. There would be no 18,000-capacity stadium to visit (the town’s population hovers around the 7,000 mark, meaning a stratospheric reproductive boom would be required to fill the Stornoway Arena) and the concept of Colonsay travelling to Kirkwall for a Wednesday night league game in the middle of winter was fanciful at best, although having checked Google Maps, not entirely impossible. I settled on a
trip to Lewis & Harris with the island’s summer league, a well-known play- ground for fans of football in Scotland’s remotest parts. It would be a five-day trip, taking in Ness, Carloway and Stornoway, as close to the edges as I could be. This wasn’t just a pilgrimage but, much like the child who spent that summer scribbling, it was also a chance for me to escape.

I live a fairly solitary life, a sense of singularity that was heightened by the events that changed the world in the spring of 2020. It’s a state that I have grown to be pretty comfortable with (some closest to me would say too com- fortable) but I’ve learned that by pulling the right internal levers at the right time I can just about keep the balance right. Should any sense of loneliness begin to become overwhelming, I know there are places I can go and for as long as I can remember, football has always been one of those places.

During those times of uncertain futures, I was fortunate that through work, football remained open to me. There were times when distanced con- versations through muffled fabric would be the sole human interaction I would have. In many ways a football match can be the perfect space to find some calm. There is no real expectation to interact.
If your mood needs it, you can enjoy something alone without feeling lonely, a collective comfort reflected at sporting venues across the world; sometimes you need that comfort without the need to be on tip top form. When fans started to return, it was joyous to see those reunions but my heart also hurt thinking about those who didn’t make it through. The empty terrace steps, seats layered thick with stoor for months never to be flicked back down and taken again, the post-match rounds that would spin back around that little bit too quickly, hours of conversations lost, never to return.

Having ventured to the island’s most

north-westerly point, those thoughts battered me like the wind as white seahorses galloped in from the heart of the ocean and onto the vast shores of Eoropie, one of Scotland’s most remote frontiers. It gave a sense of isolation that only football could bring me back from. A short scramble back over the dunes later, and with a late August shower beginning to clear, Fivepenny Machair, home of Ness FC, began to emerge.

I had actually missed the football pitch on the drive into Fivepenny, one of the 15 or so villages that make up the UK’s most north-westerly inhabited region, Ness. A winding one-track road lined by curious sheep and white cottages swings you down from the route that leads back to Stornoway; once you see the little green buildings that surround the play- ing surface, you’ll never miss it again.

A social club sits alongside, where you can get a pint and scan the walls of Ness successes past. In among the trophies and pennants, one team photo features a player’s testicle protruding from their shorts. At least three people showed me that one specific image that day.

The match itself was a one-sided affair with local rivals Westside running out comfortable victors. It was a game noticeable for a referee whose familiarity made him a frequent target from both sets of players and a wind that felt like it could turn your cheeks into finely chopped tartare. What surprised me most though was the people, a couple of hundred or so turning up on a Friday night to watch a game of football, the machair a focal point of activity where outsiders may feel there would have been nothing there to do.

For most of Ness’ players, both past and present, their first taste of football would have come at Fivepenny. Looking around, children had come with parents, grandparents and friends. There was a small pitch within Fivepenny’s bounds where the real action was going on, chil- dren chasing after the balls that ran onto the big boy’s pitch. Old-timers would sneak out a dram and can and then there were those who do the things that make the club run trying to look busy. Even in one of Scotland’s most remote football outposts, collective comfort could still be found, feelings that were replicated on the other side of the island at a’ Choilich, home of Carloway FC and at Stornoway United’s Goathill Park, a ground they share with their rivals Athletic.

If you were to ask the ten-year-old version of me if I had envisioned the communities that would have been built up around the clubs I had willed into existence, I’d have probably said ‘no’. But now, looking back, those teams were built because I thought there was no football in Tarbert, Scarinish, Jura, Kirkwall. These communities didn’t have football and I wanted to make that right for the people that lived there, even if it was for that one entirely fictitious summer.

I had gone to the islands to see if the youthful visions I once had came accompanied with a kernel of truth. The stadiums filled with thousands may not have been there, but the communities and togetherness that each of the 20 teams that made up the Highlands and Islands League were. That ability to be lost to the world of football and come out the other side feeling anew endured, whether that be via pencil and paper or from so close you can smell the deep heat.

For that one childhood summer there was no place I’d rather have watched football than in the Highlands and Islands League.



Chris Marshall

Writer | Piehopper | Scottish Women’s Football Hype Man.