Text by Fiona Grahame Images and Cartoon by Martin Laird
Winter traditions in the Northern Isles bring many visitors to the islands when most tourists would prefer to holiday in warmer climes. Shetland has its Up Helly A Festivals which owe their origins to the Victorians’ love of the Vikings. Orkney, of course, has a much older winter tradition which engulfs the main town of Kirkwall (actually a city) on both Christmas Day and New Year Day. I am referring to The Ba.
The Ba is a mass game of ‘football’ played in the streets of Kirkwall. In its present form it goes back to about the 1850s but it can trace its roots much further back than that. There are two teams, or more accurately, sides. These are the Uppies and the Doonies. At one time membership of a side depended on which part of the town you were born in. Today men – for it is a men’s game – also come in from outside the town to take part. It has been known for some visitors to have a go too.
On Christmas Day and on New Years Day men and spectators will gather at the Mercat Cross outside the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, in the heart of the town. This is where the Ba will be thrown up at 1pm. To be chosen to throw up the Ba is itself a great honour and usually goes to someone with a strong connection with the game.
The Ba which the men will struggle over for many hours up and down the streets of the town is a beautiful object. Stitched together by skilled craftsmen it forms a sphere of two different colours of leather. The winner of the game will get to keep The Ba. It is an Orcadian treasure.
The game proceeds up and down the streets of the town as The Ba is passed between players. To the onlooker it may look like this is haphazard but the night before the game strategies will have been worked out. A lot of the game takes the form of huddles as the one side tries to maintain possession of The Ba from the other side. A gasp from the crowd usually indicates that there has been a break out and a player, closely followed by his team mates and the opposition, makes a run for it.
The aim is to get The Ba to a certain point in the town. For the Uppies the goal is at Mackinson’s corner at the junction of Main Street with New Scapa Road and for the Doonies it is the sea which usually means Kirkwall basin.
The man who places the Ba either Up or Doon is not necessarily the one who ‘wins’ it. The winner and the man who will get to keep the Ba is chosen by the acclaim of his team mates. This could be someone who has played well not just in this game but in previous encounters. The winner of the Ba will also host a celebration back at his house with friends, family and neighbours.
There is also a Boy’s Ba which takes place on both days at the earlier time of 10.30am and in the 2 years immediately after WW2 there was a Woman’s Ba. Stromness, not to be left out, has recently resurrected one of its ‘traditions’. On Hogmanay two teams of men, Northenders and Southenders, have a tug of war with a large log which has to be dragged to different ends of the town, again depending on which side of the town you were from or which you now identify with. It is a much shorter affair than The Ba but it’s good to see Stromness putting up a bit of a challenge to its rival Kirkwall.
Surprisingly there are few major injuries at The Ba and spectators wisely move quickly out the way as the thunder of men in pursuit nears them. Property is protected by the stalwart efforts of The Ba committee who go out a few days before Christmas and secure strong planks of wood across the doors and windows of businesses and homes along the many routes in the town that The Ba players may run down. When damage does occur it is quickly and expertly repaired.
This article first appeared in issue 59 of iScot Magazine