In many ways, there is no sport so quintessentially Scottish as shinty.
It is only in the last 15 years or so that clubs have begun to pop up across England and other countries, but for a long time it has particularly been associated with the Scottish Highlands, where the sport remains the lifeblood of some smaller communities.
The rivalry between shinty’s two most dominant teams Kingussie and Newtonmore, separated by just a couple of miles, is the stuff of legend. Many people there will live and breathe the sport, but with a total population of roughly 2500 between them, it may be easy to assume that they – and by extension shinty as a whole – is not overly progressive.
That, though, could not be further from the experience of Evie Coultas, who plays Gaelic football as well as turning out for Glasgow Mid Argyll.
“You see discreet things that make you really proud and happy,” she explained.
“Some of the folk wear rainbow laces, and you get a sense – and I think it’s the same with a lot of folk in the queer community – that you don’t need to go shouting about it.
“The little things, the little rainbow flags or pins or laces, those make you feel like you don’t even need to talk to someone. As soon as I see those, we’re connected, because you have that support from someone else.
“Playing shinty and seeing those little things, it just makes you feel so at ease. I have never ever played shinty or Gaelic football or any other sport and felt in any way that I’m being pushed to the side or singled out for being gay. A lot of credit has to go to individual people for that.
“Everybody supported me when I was coming out. The season had finished because of Covid, and by the time we came back it had been like a year and I had come out to my family.
“I hadn’t really seen any of them, so we turned up and I let them know that I was gay. Coming out just felt so easy to do because I know them, and I know the attitude of each and every person there and the love I would get from them. They’re all just such good people, I have only ever felt support, and so much support. People are just so loving and accepting, it’s really nice.
“Especially over the last year with Covid, something that has made me feel so proud of the shinty community is that we don’t have the league up and running, but we’re still playing games, and everyone is there solely because we love shinty and we want to play. That kind of passion and enthusiasm for the game, that love for the sport, shines through in everyone.
“We’re all there for the same reason, we just want to play shinty. It’s not about winning and losing, you do your absolute best and you play the game. I think the past year has really pushed that on, because we’re all having to work that extra bit harder to get things organised or make sure things are safe.
“It just goes to show that we’re not there because it’s any other hobby, we’re there because we love it.”
Instead of being turned away by shinty, playing for GMA has actually helped Coultas embrace her identity and wear it on her sleeve every day.
Long before picking up a caman for the first time, though, Coultas was confronted at school by the stereotype that all women who play sport must be lesbians, and that sowed the seeds of resistance against being her authentic self.
“I feel like I’ve come to be the biggest sporty lesbian stereotype that there’s ever been,” Coultas laughed.
“People meet me now and say ‘so you’re the sporty lesbian’, and I totally am. I feel quite at home with that stereotype, I feel really comfortable saying that’s me, I’m happy with that.
“Back in high school, though, I played football and it was said that if you were a bit more sporty you were gay. It wasn’t thrown about as a compliment, it was thrown about in a bad way which made you feel a bit scared at the idea. You would be dead defensive if someone called you gay – just because I played sport didn’t mean I was gay.
“Because it wasn’t a positive thing, it made me reject it completely and hide away from it. For a long time when I was younger, up until I was 20 or 21, I was a bit of a tomboy so people would call me a lesbian, but it was never a good word.
“I associated it with something bad, so I totally rejected it, I would immediately say I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to explore it because it was said so negatively. If people tell you that this thing is bad, you don’t want to be that. You don’t want to be something that others are trying to be negative about.
“I came to realise after taking a bit more time to think about myself and what I really want in life that it’s just a case of having a positive impression of people who are gay. It’s not a bad thing, and that allowed me to explore it myself.
“Because it was pushed on me in a really negative sense, for the longest time the only thing that I would associate with being a lesbian was it being a bad thing. Because I didn’t know anybody who was happy or in a relationship, and you don’t hear much in the media about that, ultimately it was a case of if you came out it was going to be a lonely life. There was nobody there to fall in love with, you weren’t going to be happy, it’s just you. Of course, nobody else wants to be gay because it’s so negative.
“I guess I spent a long time after high school trying to figure myself out – where I wanted to be and what was going on. It took such a long time, a hell of a long time, because I only just came out properly to my family and everyone else last year.
“I’ve probably known and been quite comfortable with it for two or three years, so it’s all still quite new, but I think the period of leaving high school and not really knowing what to do was a lot do to with not being comfortable with who I was.”
For a lot of people who have witnessed that negativity at school, university is the first place they really get the chance to broaden their horizons. For Coultas, though, that university experience did not last long, although she did try out shinty for the first time.
That piqued her interest so that later, when researching and realising that she was based about five minutes away from GMA, she jumped at the chance to go along to a training session. That, really, was where she first came across LGBT+ people who were enjoying life just as much as anyone else.
“I don’t have a lot of friends within the LGBTI+ community, I’ve never been involved in it,” she said.
“I came into the game and realised that there were queer people there, and that those people were so happy I could see their happiness.
“If you don’t know any gay people or you don’t know anybody from the LGBT+ family, you essentially feel like there isn’t anyone out there. Coming into sport and seeing people who are queer, who identify as gay and bisexual, that was kind of new to me.
“It felt like I could explore that without the idea that it had to end in some kind of loneliness. There aren’t lots of people in our team who identify within the queer community, but the few that did made a huge impact on me.
“I felt like what I was seeing was a part of me. That was my first experience of chatting to someone who talked about their wife or girlfriend, and that took me aback. It made me think that I might not be lonely, that there were other people, so that was really nice.
“We became friends. It’s such a strange place to be in to have nobody, or not know that many folk, so to go into sport and it becomes a normal thing that isn’t a big deal – you just are who you are. If you’re happy and enjoying the game, that’s the only thing you need to worry about, that’s the only thing people care about.”
Seeing how normal it was for her new teammates to be LGBT+ inspired Coultas to begin telling people about her own identity.
It perhaps should not have been a surprise that the group that had inspired her to be herself were over the moon for her, but Coultas has seen the benefit of their influence away from sport altogether too.
“Sport has been such a huge pillar in helping me come out,” she reasoned.
“I went from trying to figure myself out and not feeling like I belonged, to playing sport and being part of a shinty team where I felt like I belonged there.
“That made me feel more confident in myself. The confidence you get from playing sport is unbelievable. From there, that confidence and security in a team and being a valued player and friend, all of that made me think I am who I am, and if I tell somebody I’m going to be accepted. If I’m comfortable and I’m happy, that’s the main goal here.
“I think sport and specifically shinty, because I was playing that before and after I came out, has given me so much confidence and so much scope and visibility to experience what it’s like to be 100%, unapologetically myself.
“Seeing other people be happy and be gay or bi, all that just makes me feel like I don’t need to apologise, and I don’t need to try and hide. They probably don’t realise how much they’ve helped me at all, maybe I should tell them.
“It’s not even support where they’ve had to say to me ‘we accept you’, it’s just so much love. If anything they’ve said I didn’t need to tell them, so many people have said the words ‘I’m so happy that you’re happy’ when I’ve told them I’m gay. Loads of people have said they’ve seen a different side to me, that I’m just a ray of sunshine, and that means so much to me because that’s how I feel. The fact that they are telling me that they’re really happy that I’m happy, it means so much.
“My mum and dad are very Catholic, so that was scary because there is a bit of a stigma that anybody who is Catholic is going to reject you. I was quite conscious of that happening, so it was difficult, but it was probably one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened. I’ve had nothing but love and support. Even trying to talk about it, I just get speechless because it was so good.
“To have to spend so much time with my family during lockdown and be able to say to them that I’ve thought about it, and this is who I am, and them to be so open and loving – they said I am who I am and they love and accept that, and not to think that would ever change, that I would become more of myself as time goes on and they would love me every step of the way.
“That was amazing. I had built it up to be a really difficult thing with my family, but it could not have went any better, it was so good.”
That conversation with her family took place during lockdown, which had given Coultas plenty of time to think things over, before telling her teammates when training sessions were allowed to resume.
Shinty is understandably taking one of the more cautious approaches to returning as pandemic restrictions ease, with the usual league structure replaced for 2021 by a regional set up.
Coultas is just enjoying being able to get back on the pitch in one form or another though, and she is revelling in playing for Glasgow Mid Argyll as an out lesbian for the first time.
“We’ve had a good few games and friendlies,” Coultas recalled.
“I don’t know how it’s happened, we used to struggle a bit for numbers at Glasgow Mid Argyll but over the last two years we’ve gotten so many more new players. People must have come out of lockdown and thought they needed to try shinty, it’s amazing. We used to barely be able to field a full team, and now we essentially have enough for two teams.
“We play each other, and we’ve kind of split ourselves up into Glasgow and Argyll. We’re still GMA as one, but because we’ve had so many people join we’re able to play ourselves and match up talent for talent.
“That has been good, and then we’ve gotten friendlies through our connections with Glasgow Uni. We’re doing round robin-type tournaments, it’s 15 minute games and there are four teams there, so you get a few games each.
“It’s really nice and it’s dead busy, so you get to not only play the game but watch other teams too. You’re working on your own performance and trying to get better, and then you get to look at other people and pick up on things to try. It’s a new way of doing games because we don’t have the league, but there’s so much to learn from it, so it has been really good.
“I have noticed a difference in myself. Being so comfortable in me, and knowing my team are there to support me, playing the game becomes the only thing that I need to think about. There is nothing else.
“It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, it was like I could run faster because I was lighter. It really was like that, having the break and then coming back to it, I felt so much lighter and so much more myself. It helped in every aspect of my life, not just shinty but everything else too.”