Ba is basically mob football or a medieval version of football played in Scotland, notably in Orkney and the Scottish Borders at Christmas and New Year. Two parts of the town have to get the ball to their respective side, the two sides are commonly known as the Uppies or the Downies, the men and boys of the town are chosen for one side or the other depending on the part of the town they were born, or owe their allegiances too. However, more recently family loyalty is more often than not more important than the place of birth, with players playing for the same side as their father, grandfathers and great grandfathers did before them, regardless of where they live now.
The ball is manhandled, very often involving in a moving scrum through the town, going up alleyways, into gardens, yards and up streets. Houses and Businesses board up their windows to prevent damage, however despite this people are generally not hurt, unlike in the more traditional mob football.
The ba’ itself is a handmade, cork-filled, leather ball. A finished Men’s ba’ weighs about 3 lbs with a circumference of around 28 inches. The Boy’s ba’ is slightly smaller.
Making the Ba’
Each Ba’ game is played with a new ba’, each specially made for the game and by one of a few Orcadian ba’ makers and is in itself a piece of exquisite craftsmanship. The four or five millimetre thick leather panels that make up the ba’ case are hand stitched, and then stuffed with cork dust. The cork stuffing not only makes the completed ba’ hard, but it also ensures that the ba’ will float, should it reach the Doonie goal and end up in the sea. Half of each alternating leather panel is painted black, with the remaining panels stained a natural leather colour. It takes approximately four days to create just one ba’, with the stitching alone taking up to two days.
Every year, in the final weeks leading up to each game, the finished ba’s are displayed in shop windows in Kirkwall before being thrown to the pack on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Origins of the Ba’
Little is actually known of the game’s early history and its origins. No one knows how old the game really is, only that it is at least 300 years old. Before this, the game is covered in folklore which tries to explain the development and significance of it, but thing we do know is that the Kirkwall Ba’ is the last of the mass Yuletide football games once common throughout Orkney.
Some say that the conflict between the two sides of the Ba’ game is a remnant of an ancient symbolic game that represented the end of the old year and the coming of the new year, or possibly a conflict between winter and summer, or an ancient fertility rite. It was once thought that if the Ba’ went up, Kirkwall would be rewarded with a good harvest, although if the Doonies won they would see good fishing. This belief seemed to have survived through to the late 19th century, when after a period of 29 years – 1846 to 1875 – of Doonie New Year victories, the Uppies finally broke their dominance and the ba’ went up.
After the game, an old spectator was recorded as saying “We’ll surely hae guid tatties this year, after the ba’ has gaen up.” It was in 1846, the first year of the Doonies dominance that the potato blight appeared in Orkney.
The Kirkwall Ba’
From the mid-17th century, Kirkwall’s football games were played on an area of ground known as the Ba’Lea – a playing field stretching from East Kirk to the area known as Warrenfield. It bore little resemblance to today’s ba’ games because the ball was kicked and never picked up or carried – a forerunner to the game we know as Association Football perhaps. This is common with the traditional football games carried out across the islands and parishes of Orkney, at weddings and at Yule.
However, in later years, the Kirkwall game moved from the Ba’ Lea down onto the Kirk green, before making a final move onto Broad Street in 1800. It was after the short move on to Broad Street that the format of the Ba’ game began to change. The manner of play began to change and grappling and holding the ball became more common. By 1850, the Ba’
had more or less assumed its present form, although a considerable amount of kicking was still involved.
The change in playing style may be due to the increasing number of players, spectators and the resulting lack of space. This style also meant that the ba’ itself had to change. It was no longer a light, inflated ball, the ba’ eventually became the heavier, more durable leather orb still in use today.
Every Christmas Eve and Hogmanay, home owners and business owners along Kirkwall’s central streets are seen boarding up doors and windows in preparation for the next days’ ba’ games festivities.
The Game begins
Two ba’ games are played every Christmas and New Year’s Day. The first, the Boys’ Ba’, begins at 10.30am, the Men’s Ba’ starts at 1pm. The game begins on Kirkwall’s Broad Street, in the gaze of St Magnus Cathedral. The Uppie goal is to touch the ba’ against a wall in the south end of the town, while the Doonies have to get the ba’ into the water of Kirkwall Bay, to the north.
There are no hard and fast rules, and although the game is rough, tempers are usually kept in check and foul play is not tolerated. Given the nature of the Ba’, it is surprising to note that serious injuries to players are fairly rare. More often
than not though, it is the unfamiliar spectators who get hurt, due to a lack of room to manoeuvre.
As the clock on the cathedral strikes 1pm, a VIP, usually someone with a long association with the game, throws the ba’ from the Mercat Cross into the gathered crowd of players. As soon as it lands in the crowd, the fight for the ba’ begins, each side trying to gain ground and carry the ba’ towards their goal. Players brace themselves against nearby buildings to
prevent the other side from capturing ground, as the streets turn into their playing field, men push and pull to try to gain a few extra steps towards their goal. Chaos does erupt though, when the pack breaks, those in possession of the ba’ try and get as close to their goal as possible before being stopped. But as soon as they are intercepted, the scrum quickly reforms. This continued struggle means that a typical game could last for hours, with an average game lasting around five hours, but could last for up to eight hours or more.
It is not all about scrums or running with the ball or forcing your way through the throngs of players, tactics are also involved. While the majority of players have no idea where the ba’ actually is, this leads to a number of attempts to smuggle the ba’ out of the scum or create fake breaks, in the hope that the opposition will follow the wrong player. A successful break allows players to sprint towards their goal, making the most of Kirkwall’s winding streets to slow down pursuers. Players have also been known to use rooftops in an attempt to reach their goals.
When the goal is finally reached, the ba’, itself a much coveted trophy, is awarded to the player in the winning side, who has been a notable participant over the years. To Ba’ enthusiasts the ultimate honour is to have the Ba’, hanging in the living room window.
However despite the camaraderie of the game, with very few players actually getting hurt, the authorities in the past such as Town Councils, Sheriffs and others have tried to ban the Ba’ or have it relocated from the street. The game is a very important part of the town’s calendar to every player and spectator, but has been derided as barbaric and senseless by others. Despite having to defend itself against petty officials, the Ba’ game tradition is still very well supported and apart from the game itself, the festivities and the social gathering are great for all those who participate, whether as a player or as a spectator.
There are a number of similarities between the Ba’ game to football as we know it today, not to mention rugby, and despite claims from our neighbours down south stating that they invented Football, it seems that we have a very strong claim to that prize after all, despite what the English throw at the world.
First published in Issue 5 of The 12th Man Scottish Football Fanzine.