The Kirkwall Ba’ is a rough and ready game played
through the streets of Orkney twice a year and it is definitely
not for the faint hearted!
Christmas and New Year are celebrated the world over in many different
ways with lots of varied traditions but nowhere are they celebrated
in quite as boisterous fashion as they are in Orkney.
Every Christmas and New Year’s day shopkeepers and householders
in Kirkwall board up their windows and doors in preparation for
the traditional ba’ game involving several hundred players
The ba’ is a kind of street rugby that starts at Mercat
Cross in front of the cathedral when the ba’ is thrown up
into the crowd at one o’clock and the two teams the Uppies
– those born south of the cathedral - and the Doonies –
those from the north side of the cathedral – begin their epic
The aim of the game is to get the ball into the "goal"
– the Uppies aiming to get the ball up against a wall in the
south of the town and the Doonies hoping to put the ball into the
harbour at the north.
Tactics are quite simple really with a huge scrum building around
the player with the ball in the middle and each side trying to manipulate
it towards their goal while the other tries to halt their path.
Sometimes breaks are made from the scrum and the ba’ moves
quickly down the winding lanes of Kirkwall before the opposite team
regroup and halt its path once more. The ba’ has even been
sneaked through houses or across rooftops in a bid to win!
There are no rules in the ba’ and although it tends to be
rough and tumble there is an air of courtesy among the players who
have to heave and push for hours on end to bring the game to a conclusion,
which often doesn’t happen until early evening.
When one team finally manages to reach their goal the ba’
- a cork dust filled leather ball specially hand crafted for each
game – is awarded to a player from the winning side and takes
pride of place in their home.
The exact origins of the ba’ are unclear but it is thought
to have evolved from early Yule celebrations and is the only mass
football game left of the many which were once held across Scotland
Its known the ba’ has been played in Orkney since at least
the mid 17th century but the style of the game has changed over
the years and originally it was kicked and rarely handled whereas
in the modern game it is picked up and carried.
The New Year Ba’ was the most important game for many years
until in the late 19th century the Christmas Day Ba’ started
to gain in popularity and now both are important occasions.
Over the centuries many legends have sprung up around the ba’
with the most popular and well known of these being the story of
the evil tyrant Tusker, who had prominent protruding canine teeth.
The evil Tusker was defeated by a young Orcadian man who rowed
across the Pentland Firth to track him down and returned to Orkney
on horseback with Tusker’s severed head tied to his saddle.
But during the journey the dead Tusker’s protruding teeth
punctured the man’s leg and the wound became infected killing
him. The legend says before he died the Orcadian managed to stagger
into Mercat Cross where he threw the tyrant’s head into a
crowd of townsfolk who were so outraged they kicked the head through
the streets in anger.
There is also a suggestion that the ba’ may have originated
as a fertility rite as it was believed that if the Uppies won they
would be rewarded with a bountiful harvest whereas if the Doonies
were victorious there would be plentiful catches of fish.
Whatever the true origins of the Kirkwall Ba’ it has become
an integral part of the Orcadian calendar and is sure to remain
an important occasion for centuries to come.