Scotland’s mainland boasts some of the world’s finest footballing establishments at club level. But it’s the far north of Scotland, and in particular the Northern Isles, who fly the flag for regionalised football within the country.
The annual inter-county match between Orkney and Shetland, which sees the regions battle it out for the Milne Cup, has become a mainstay of the football calendar in the islands since the first game kicked off way back in 1908. In 104 meetings, Shetland hold the bragging rights with 58 wins to Orkney’s 40, whilst the most recent contest in 2022 saw Shetland record the highest ever victory in a Milne Cup, thrashing their fiercest rivals 8-0 in Kirkwall.
Today, the Shetland-Orkney rivalry encompasses not only men’s teams, but also women’s teams, alongside several youth levels for both boys and girls, making it much more inclusive for the community.
Unlike on the mainland where localised club football predominates, representing their respective regions in an inter-county match means a great deal to footballers in the Northern Isles. Lewis Harkness, who has represented Shetland on numerous occasions against Orkney, feels footballers in Shetland take the prospect of being selected to represent their county very seriously.
“There is a real sense of pride in putting on the Shetland strip and being able to represent Shetland.”
That strong sense of regional identity that reverberates throughout the Shetland team does not appear to be too dissimilar from feelings resembling that of national identity; in fact, Shetland regularly competed in inter-regional matches with the Faroe Islands, right up until 1990 when the latter joined UEFA to become an international football association.
Lewis recognises that a strong attachment to the islands has had a key part to play in why interest in the inter-county fixture has always been high.
“I would definitely say that regional identity in the northern isles is very strong and people are proud of where they come from and what it is they stand for. I think that the inter-county matches strengthen the regional identity as it’s something you take serious and real pride in being able to represent your county at any age group and in any occasion.”
James Aitken, who scored a hat-trick for Shetland in that historic 8-0 win over Orkney last summer, echoes his teammates comments in suggesting geographical location has a huge part to play in the rivalry.
“With us and Orkney being quite far away from mainland Scotland, but only a few hours apart from each other, then we’re almost in our own little North Isles bubble, and I think that’s what makes the rivalry pretty strong and certainly unique. Shetlanders are proud to be from Shetland and the same goes for Orkney too, so ‘playing for pride’ is certainly a huge part of the inter-county.”
It’s fair to say that James has accumulated countless fond memories of the big occasion, with last year’s record-breaking win certainly being no exception.
“It was a pretty unforgettable day to be honest. That first half was one of the best halves of football I’ve ever been involved in, everything just seemed to click into place. Scoring a hat-trick was obviously a nice cherry on the top but the team performance was the reason we won.”
With preparations already well underway for the match in July, conversations about who should and shouldn’t be involved in training, which commenced in October, are also rife throughout the community.
“I think generally there is a buzz around both communities in the build up to the game. And a couple weeks before the match when the squads are announced, that just adds an extra layer of excitement. Crowds on the day are usually big and I’d imagine an average attendance would be in the high hundreds.”
Adam Harcus, fixture secretary and committee member of the Orkney Association Football Association (OAFA), said that in Orkney, the ultimate honour for club players is quite often seen as playing for the county.
“I think the players that are capable at playing at county level do generally take playing for Orkney pretty seriously, especially when it comes to the Shetland game.
“We have an annual game against Caithness, which is very much seen as a warm-up to the Shetland game. Shetland’s the big one, undoubtedly.”
Adam thinks that regional identity, as well as the tradition of the Milne Cup itself, is a huge factor in why the inter-county fixture has meant so much to people in the islands over the last century.
“They kind of play into each other. I think if you tried to start the Milne Cup today, I don’t think it would be as successful or as fiercely contested. I think there is just that natural rivalry because of the geography – they’re an island with 22,000 folk, so are we, and it’s a half-hour flight. It just works quite well.”
Inter-county leagues within association football are generally hard to come by. Local football clubs may participate in intra-regional leagues, such as the Highland and Lowland leagues in Scotland, but football league clubs tend to represent an individual town, city, and/or community within that settlement, as opposed to an entire county or region.
However, inter-county structures are nationwide in some sports, with Gaelic football – which has strong links to the ‘beautiful game’ – having thrived for well over a century in Ireland as an inter-county based competition.
According to the Teneo Sport and Sponsorship Index 2022, Gaelic games, and especially Gaelic football, are the most popular and most played in the country, with the inter-county structure being championed by all sports within the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA).
So, should other counties in Scotland take note of the inter-county structure by creating their own regionalised football teams?
“I think there is an opportunity for other counties to follow suit and have their own football matches, or whatever sport it is they decide to go with”, Lewis Harkness said.
“I think sport is a massive thing in the smaller places and the community has a massive part to play in that.”
However, Adam Harcus thinks the rivalry is unlikely to be replicated in other parts of Scotland.
“I think community involvement in football is always a good thing. But I think trying to harness it relatively artificially would be tricky. I don’t think you’d ever get an Aberdeenshire team, for example, because there’s not that sense of “we are one community coming together” like in Orkney or Shetland.”
James Aitken echoed a similar sentiment, noting that the tradition of the inter-county fixture in the Northern Isles is what has led to its success.
“I think it would be difficult to start up other regional inter-county matches. The Shetland versus Orkney rivalry is something that has built up over more than 100 years and again, the geographical location adds to the rivalry we have.
“But it’s certainly not impossible and I’m not going to say it can’t be done. In forty-fifty years time, it would be great to see different inter-county matches, and maybe even an inter-isles tournament between the Scottish Isles.”
Shetland are set to take on Orkney again this year on Saturday 29th July in Lerwick, in what will be the 105th meeting between the two sides.