WHY did six young men from the same shinty team take their own lives in a Highland town?

It is the question a new two-part radio documentary, starting today, seeks to answer with the help of the families involved, psychologists and the support workers who are trying to make inroads into a problem that has blighted the area for decades.

Gary Innes, a well known traditional musician, played alongside all six of the young men at some point in his life, while part of Fort William's shinty team.

The first happened when he was 15, the last in 2017, when he was 36 and could could fully appreciate the magnitude of the collective tragedy.

"It's resonated with me my whole life but I hadn't really thought about it until the last two years, just how many had gone from one team," says the father-of-one who now lives in Glasgow and presents Radio Scotland's Take the Floor.

"I think the Highlands in particular and shinty didn't really lend itself to talking about your feelings.

"You met them at training at Tuesday and Thursday and then you had a game on Saturday and you went for a few pints. It was just usually all good craic, with everyone in great form.

"I think that was peoples' release more than anything else.

"What was scary for me is the last one, he was 29 and on the outside, a happily married man and a terrific sportsman with no underlying medical health issues that anyone was aware of and from a very caring, loving family. It petrified me."

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The Highlands, in common with Moray, is known to have higher suicide rates than the Scottish average, and while figures have been reducing the Highlands’ has been rising.

Social deprivation in cities and more rural areas are thought to play a role but as the documentary establishes, there are no definitive answers.

The issues are touched upon in the BBC drama Normal People, when Connell Waldron experiences a period of depression after the suicide of his school friend, the seemingly happy-go-lucky, Rob Hegarty who remains at home while his friend is an academic high-flyer.


In the documentary, Mr Innes, 29, interviews Joyce about her son Gary, who was the goalkeeper when he played for Fort William's under-17s team in the mid-1990s and took his own life in 2014.

She recalls: "The day before he was in here, he had his dinner. The next morning, he had been in a bit of a state and one of his colleagues took him to the health centre.

"I asked him how he was feeling and he said I think I'm strong enough to handle it myself. The next day I got up and there was a message on Facebook, 'Today I do something with my life.'

"And then I got a phone call to say there had been an incident and I knew instantly it was Gary. I just knew and I screamed.

"It was about half past ten before the police arrived and I said to them, 'I know exactly what you are going to tell me.'

"Yes, he talked about it in the past but never in a million years did we think he would do it. "And every day, we think 'what if.'

"He was a big fella, he was a bouncer, the shinty man. 

"Definitely, no matter how much you ask them to open up, what do men talk about? "The football, sport...they don't talk about their inner feelings, especially in a place like Lochaber.

"He didn't know where to go for help. I think nowadays people will talk more."

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Gary says one of the men, Bobby, was very close friends with two of the others who died. After the first death, he made a pact with three other friends that they would try to reach out for support if it was needed.

Despite this, another in the group took his own life and Bobby himself was also facing serious struggles with his own mental health and a gambling addiction.

He says: "Towards the end of 2016 I got into a really dark place where I was a step away from not being here."

He says that marked his own personal turning point. He spoke out to his wife Marianne which led him to seek out support from a GP.

Professor Rory O'Connor, who leads the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at Glasgow University, carried out research looking into the role of 'masculinity' in male suicides.

"It did come out as an important factor, this reluctance to seek help," he says.

"How it works more broadly in a team sense, we are not so certain about because there is now growing evidence that innovative interventions, working with football clubs are using that space of men being together and hopefully being in that space, talking together.

"We need to be working from the earliest of ages, in terms of re-forming our masculinity and what it is to be a successful man."

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A stone's throw away from An Aird, and the pitch where Fort William shinty club play, is Lochaber Hope, a mental health support charity which has helped more than 1800 people over the past few years.

"When a new person comes in and they choose to speak, it's a bit like an un-load, a bit like a furnace that's been heated up and heated up and suddenly you have poked a hole in it and their shoulder start to come down," says Steven MacTavish, a support worker at the charity.

"There's a saying, you have to come outside the frame to see the picture.

"When people are within the town, they don't really leave the town. They have nothing to compare or contrast their lives to, they end up in a little box of thinking.

"The old style of thinking is being tough and getting on with it."

Alison Smith, who manages the charity, says:  "I thought I was going to change the world in 40 days, give people a bit of hope. I still believe it."

A spokesman for the Camanachd Association said: “We are committed to promoting health and well-being and have provided a number of template policies to support our member clubs and associations with this goal.

"We also offer assistance through our Club Health & Wellbeing Ambassador and Shinty Chaplaincy programmes.

"The CA Development Team have developed a Mental Health Awareness workshop and are all trained to deliver it throughout the country.”

Six Men will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesday and Thursday at 11.30am.