While all over the country, people are opening presents and wrestling turkey’s into too small ovens; in Orkney, in Kirkwall at least, all this is put aside on Christmas day to make time for the Ba’. The game that both divides and unites Orcadians. If you live in Kirkwall and you are Orcadian (although there are, of course, exceptions), you are either an Uppie or a Doonie – originally based on where you were born (up or down the gate) but nowadays it has more to do with the family allegiance and for incomers, how they came into the town when they arrived.
Ba’ families take the game very seriously, they know it’s history, who won the ba’ when and when it is won it is displayed with pride in the house. The game is played on Christmas day and on New Year’s day. There is a men’s game and a boys game. The boys starts first at 10am and the men’s is at 1pm. It is rare but not unheard of for the boys game to still be going when the men’s game begins. For a better explanation of the how the ‘game’ is played see here.
Christmas morning, OM’s daughter was up early, her excitement divided between the Christmas stocking full of presents and her classmates who would be playing this year – she was up, dressed and ready by the door while I was still stumbling around drinking tea. I promised to be ready in time for the men’s and watched her and OM head off. I appreciate that it’s an important day. There was the prospect of one of her peer group winning the ba’ this year if the Doonies won.
By noon, I was ready to head out. I’d been warned to dress warmly, but comfortably and to wear shoes I could run in if necessary. The game takes place through the town and the pack of up to 300 men can move very fast – if it is coming towards you, as I found out later, you need to be able to get out of the way quickly. Our first port of call was the pub. Of course. Where a few of the men were gathering, some for a quick dram, the younger ones sticking to water or soft drinks.
The gaffer tape round their boots and/or trousers was explained as being there to stop the laces being broken. Outside, more men congregated, shifting and pacing partly to keep warm and partly keying themselves up. As we walked up the street towards the cathedral, more young men poured down the alleyways to gather in groups waiting. They would join the main group as they walked from the pub to the cathedral. Spectators exchanged good morning and Happy Christmas’ greetings and chatted while waiting.
You can hear them before you see them if you’re waiting by the market cross. From either end of the town the sound of boots and voices chanting. It’s an intimidating sight. The crowds of onlookers move aside to let them pass and the two teams meet in the middle of the street, waiting for the clock to strike and the ba’ to be thrown into a crowd of up to 300 men.
1pm and the ba’ flies across their heads to disappear almost immediately into a scrum of bodies. It could be a while before anything happened. I’d been warned that once the ba’ gets into the scrum you won’t see it again.
But suddenly there’s a break and the brown and black hard sphere is coming this way, it’s at our feet rolling away between me and the OM, who is running backwards watching both the ba’ and the men focused on their prize.
And suddenly hundreds of men are running this way too and I’m between them and the wall with the ba’ rolling my way.
A woman touches my arm and indicates a way out away from being crushed. I have no idea where OM is, but I follow her to safety and find myself on the other side of the road. Looking around to see where OM is, I see he is on the far side of the scrum. I need to stay put for the moment.
As the game develops into another static scrummage, I judge it is ok to join my husband and try to get some photographs.
It’s exciting. The cold frosty air, the heat of the bodies intent on their goal, you can feel the history, the energy and intensity, the honour to be lost or won. There are no rules, they say, apart from getting the ba’ to your goal – the bay for the Doonies, the city wall for the Uppies. But watching with old ba’ players, I soon learn that there are unwritten and mostly unspoken rules. A degree of violence and force is necessary, but unnecessary settling of old scores and outright fighting is frowned upon and quickly squashed. You might get a run with the ba’ to your goal and reach it, but if no one sees it go in, then it’s not over. Even when you get the ba’ to the goal, that’s not a guarantee that you’ve won your ba’. The scorer is rarely the ba’ winner. This is decided after the score.
When the ba’ finally hit the water around 7ish on Christmas day evening, it was another 20 minutes of battling it out in the water, with the crowd calling the names of favourites, before a winner was called and carried high out of the sea with his ba’ to the pub.
Time to leave.
Over 100 men, wet, steaming with sweat and adrenaline, coming into a small bar is quite a sight, but not something you want to be in.
We ducked out, as they were pouring in, to head home. The men would have a quick drink, go home, shower, change and head to the winner’s house for the party. The women of the house will have been warned by then and will have soup on and drink in. Other women will turn up with more soup, drink and food. As if by instinct, the women will support and help each other to make sure all is ready for the winning team.
There is something primal in the game and the activities around it. The participants have grown up with the game, it’s in their DNA, boy’s who played became men who played. Once you’ve won your ba’ as a man or a boy then often you won’t go near it for a few years. The Ba’ itself will be displayed with pride in the house and new ones are made each year.
This year, doonies won both Christmas and New Year – men and boys both. It was a good year