Highland League club Clachnacuddin FC is at the heart of its community – but the team is now playing its football on a rugby pitch after part of its ground was damaged in a fire. BBC Scotland journalist Donald Pollock says the club is grateful for the help, but keen to return to its traditional home.
There was a time when Clach na Cùdainn – The Stone of the Tub – was an important symbol for the people of Inverness.
The stone was where women rested with baskets of clothes after washing them in the River Ness.
So synonymous was the stone with the Highland capital that locals were known as Clachnacuddins.
A story goes of a fine gentleman from India arriving in town and asking to be shown the famous Clachnacuddin, only to be somewhat underwhelmed by the stone to which he had drunk so many toasts.
Times change, and despite the stone’s now prominent position by Inverness Town House, Clach na Cùdainn lost significance among Invernessians.
Except in the Merkinch area, where they cherish the football team that kept the name alive.
There are those who maintain that Merkinch is almost a town within Inverness. And right enough, there is a feeling of the high street about Grant Street.
As you cross the Black Bridge over the River Ness, it’s hard not to conclude that you’re entering a distinct community.
At its heart is Grant Street Park, the home of Clachnacuddin FC.
Like all good football clubs, Clach typify the community that surrounds them. They roll with the punches.
Whether you know it as Grant Street, Clach Park, or the Ferry San Siro, their home has its own special charm.
Celtic Park had the Jungle. Anfield has the Kop. The Clach diehards gather in the Wineshed.
The team used to take to the field to the tune of the BBC’s Grandstand.
With the late Billy Nelson on the tannoy, there would be a running commentary on local news between the team lines and songs – some of his own numbers among them. Surely you’ve heard Westering Home to the Ferry?
‘Welcome to the Ferry’
On another occasion, Forres Mechanics were visiting Merkinch.
As time slipped away, a high ball was pumped into the box.
The Mechanics keeper rose majestically to make a catch, only to be confronted by a gang of Clach attackers in whom the spirit of Nat Lofthouse was alive and well. Ball and man were left gasping for air in the back of the net at the bottom of a Merkinch pile up.
An elderly gentleman, barely awake through the game, was taking it all in behind the goals. The magnificent scene seemed to rouse him from his slumber. Perhaps it took him back to his youth.
He was awake now all right and he had a message for the Forres custodian, one delivered with such style and volume that they might well have heard it back at Mosset Park.
He shouted “Welcome to the Ferry.”
Aye, Clach Park has a special charm.
But only rarely does it have a queue of spectators waiting to get in.
That’s exactly what happened earlier this month when Clach made a temporary flit across town.
With repairs continuing at Grant Street following a fire in a changing room before Christmas, the Merkinch Lilywhites were granted permission to switch their Highland League match against Fort William to Canal Park, the impressive home of Highland Rugby Club.
Friday night games
On a biting cold January night, Clach against the Fort was the hottest ticket in town as 700 fans turned out to watch two sides at the foot of the Highland League.
It wasn’t a great night for Clach from a football perspective.
A number of the young Fort side on loan from Caley Thistle were well acquainted with Canal Park from training sessions with their Scottish Championship club.
They seemed visibly more comfortable than Clach on the plastic pitch as they secured just their second league win of the season. Both against Clach.
But off the park, the bumper crowd was a significant boost for Clach at a time when they need every penny.
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Little wonder that talk began of more Friday night games at the shiny new Canal Park.
In their hour of need
Clach will be back this Friday when Forres visit the Highland capital once more. Depending on those repairs at Clach Park, this could yet be a more regular occurrence in the weeks ahead.
Will 700 fans turn up as the novelty factor wears off and without the Inverness Caledonian Thistle link to Fort William? Perhaps not.
But any kind of increase on their average will be good news for Clach.
Highland Rugby Club and High Life Highland, the body that runs leisure facilities in the Highlands, deserve great credit for helping out the Merkinchers in their hour of need.
Canal Park is an excellent facility and one which appears to have breathed new life into the rugby club.
It’s a welcome short-term fix for Clach too, and one they are grateful for, but it isn’t home.
Even with 700 fans, the atmosphere against Fort William was a little flat. In truth, it felt a bit like watching a training session.
It certainly wasn’t Clach Park.
Because if you take Clachnacuddin out of Merkinch, they aren’t really Clachnacuddin at all.
Let’s hope they’re Westering Home to the Ferry soon.