Tommy Ross famously scored a hat-trick in just 90 seconds on Saturday, November 28, 1964 – a feat recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records. The former Inver inside forward and future St Duthus FC manager scored seven goals that day for Dingwall’s Ross County in an 8-1 Highland League win over a hapless Nairn County.
Tommy’s son, Stu Ross, a prolific forward in his own right for Tain Royal Academy, I hadn’t seen much of in almost fifteen years. Since we left school in fact. Although we’d bumped into each other once or twice in football circles and sent the occasional text message back and forth, it’s not quite the same as sitting down for a pint and having a proper chat about the game. So, I was pleased when the opportunity arose for us to meet in the Saint Duthus Hotel on February 6th for a long overdue catchup, and at the same time, discuss the beginning of the Saints’ Revival.
We were joined by Dale Finlayson, a second generation St Duthus committee man and the current Chairman of Tain Thistle Football Club, and Stu’s brother Andy, author of a number of football books and another former St Duthus man himself. The only agenda item on the table – was it feasible to bring back one of the North of Scotland’s oldest senior football teams and reintroduce them to the winter football scene?
The St Duthus FC tale began in the most grandiose of fashions. In 1884, while every other town in Ross-shire had adopted the “Rugby” code, Tain were insistent on playing by “Association” rules. They were alone in their stance, and as a result of their choice, matches against rival towns were few and far between. Instead, they organised matches between various combinations in the town.
In 1884, a writer to the Invergordon Times commented;
At Tain, players are very busy, although we think it a pity that in a district where all the clubs play the Rugby game, they should think proper to go in for the Association code.
The first, and most spectacular, competitive “Association code” fixture in Tain, was played for a richly sought after Challenge Vase donated by Robert de Graéme Graéme, then owner of Culpleasant House. Graéme welcomed two sets of teams and their officials to his estate for the game, treating them to a “sumptuous” meal prepared by his housemaid before they kicked off. On the day, the “Lords” beat the “Commons” and they collected the reward. The occasion whetted the appetite of Tain’s sportsmen and within a year, members of Tain’s St Duthus Cricket Club met to formalise a new committee and on October 9, 1885, Saint Duthus Football Club were born.
Becoming accustomed to wearing red and white vertical stripes, the team grew in stature and by the 1890s, they had up to four teams of players available at any one time under the St Duthus Football Club banner, playing in challenge matches against neighbouring towns and villages. In 1896, the Pattisons’ Challenge Cup was donated to the town by whisky distillers, Walter and Robert Pattison for competition within Ross-shire. Beating Victoria United of Dingwall (albeit controversially) in the final, Tain had now captured their first ever silverware. The rivalry between the “Vics” and the “Saints” continued to grow well into the 1900s and more often than not, the teams would come up against each other in different stages of the major cup competitions. After the First World War, St Duthus notched another “first”, when they pipped the Vics, Alness United, Invergordon and Black Rock Rovers (Evanton) to the first ever organised Ross-shire Junior League championship title. They achieved their greatest pre-WW2 feat when they won the North of Scotland Junior Cup (later known as the North Caledonian Cup) four years later in 1924, defeating the North champions ‘Catch My Pal’ at Thistle Park, Inverness. By this time, St Duthus could rightfully claim to be one of the best junior sides in the Highlands.
Throughout all of this time, their greatest benefactor had been their Honorary President of over 30 years, Peter Mackenzie, otherwise known as The Count de Serra Largo. Serra Largo was a retired businessman, who had earned his fortune working with the Singer Sewing Company and was now living with his family on his estate at Tarlogie. The Count took a great interest in sport, contributing to shinty, curling, golf and above all, football. Following his passing in 1931, it wasn’t at all surprising that St Duthus eventually fell into a state of hiatus in 1933.
The club was resurrected by a committee involving saddler George Davidson and confectioner Leo Pieraccini, the latter becoming a permanent fixture in the Tain football set up from then on, introducing his own youth football competition, the Pieraccini Cup, which became a much sought after trophy for young footballers in the area. This new incarnation of the Saints wore Queen’s Park-esque black and white hoops and while not challenging for the regional honours of the previous team, they were holding their own in the Ross-shire set up.
After the Second World War, St Duthus resumed competition as members of the Ross-shire Junior League before the new Ross-shire “Welfare” League replaced it in the late 1950s. Under manager Christy Grant and now back in their more traditional red and white colours, the club earned a number of honours in the “Welfare”, most successfully in 1963 when they scooped all four cup trophies, only narrowly missing out of the league title itself.
It wasn’t until 1973 that the club would regain it’s regional status, playing as members of the “senior” North Caledonian Football Association – commonly referred to as the Highland League “second XI”. The league had a buzz about it throughout the 1970 and 80s, with as many as sixteen member teams competing for honours at one stage. It was with this association that St Duthus would remain until their demise in 2005. During that era, the team won eleven trophies.
- North Caledonian Cup (4 times) 1978-79, 1983-84, 1986-87, 1989-90
- Chic Allan Memorial Cup (1 time) 1985-86
- Football Times Cup (2 times) 1980-81, 1981-82
- Morris Newton Cup (2 times) 1990-91, 1991-92
- Ness Cup (2 times) 1978-79, 1980-81
The league championship eluded Tain St Duthus.
Eleven years have passed since St Duthus played a competitive game in any league; the old strips having been reserved only for occasional memorial matches, “old boys” get togethers or testimonials.
The four of us will meet again in March. Immediately following that, a formalisation meeting will take place between us and volunteers who have come forward to join the new St Duthus FC committee, where the recent invitation from the North Caledonian League to rejoin their association will be presented, and the new committee will prepare the club’s case for re-election to the league.
On the park, Stu and Andy have already made significant strides towards putting a team of willing players together for the club’s first season, contacting a number of established players in the Tain area and extending that invite further afield too, having spoken with a number of ex-Highland League players and seasoned North Caledonian league campaigners.
Off the park, fundraising has begun. The launch of a Supporter driven Saints’ Revival Fund has already seen the club raise £250 in just two days and that amount continues to grow. The costs associated with playing in any senior league are much greater than that of summer, county based leagues such as the Ross-shire Welfare League – largely due to travel expenses for both the team and visiting referees. The geographical spread of North Caledonian FA members now spans from as far North as the Shetland Islands all the way down to Fort William!
We’re also building from the ground up. The club needs new kit, training equipment, balls, etc. From March onward, it will be the job of the newly elected committee to attract a main sponsor for the team and seek out new fundraising options to ensure these costs can be covered.
With just six months until the start of the 2016-17 season, re-election may not necessarily be the tough part. Survival will be. It is for that reason that the committee must appeal to anyone who wants to see the Saints’ Revival become a reality. If you can offer your help, your time or even if you can simply join our Supporters Club, please do so.
Niall Harkiss is the author of the 2014 book Ross-shire Football’s Forgotten Pioneers. Synopsis – Long before the formation of Ross County, footballers in the Royal Burgh of Tain were rubbing shoulders with Dingwall’s Victoria United – playing on the same parks, sharing post-match stories over a drink and a meal, and more specifically, competing for the same cups, and vying for the same honours. But as one team was catapulted into the senior ranks, the other eventually faded into non existence.