If you arrive in Kirkwall in the days or even weeks leading up to Christmas you might wonder if the town is about to be besieged. Wooden barricades are erected to protect doors and windows as if from some sort of violent attack. The truth is that the barricades are put up to protect buildings from hundreds of bodies that surge through the streets in pursuit of a leather trophy; the Ba’.
Kirkwall's Ba’ games are held on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day (unless these fall on a Sunday, then it's Boxing Day and 2nd January) with both men’s and boys’ games played on each day. A remnant of mass football games, accounts for the Ba’ begin in the 1800s, though it is believed the tradition is much older. Men of all backgrounds and ages compete for the prized leather ball. What they have in common is a huge passion for the game.
To see the action for yourself - from the safety of your computer - have a look at this short trailer, filmed in Kirkwall as part of a wider film on the history of ball games around the world.
There are two sides, the Uppies and Doonies, their names derived from Up-the-Gates or Doon-the-Gates, from Old Norse ‘gata’ for a road. The Ba’ is thrown up to the crowd at the Mercat Cross in Kirkwall. The Uppies’ goal is up the street opposite the Catholic church and the Doonies is down in the harbour - salt water must be involved for a doonie win. A Doonie was traditionally one born between the line of Old Post Office Lane and the harbour, with Uppies from the other side of the line. People born outside Orkney, say in Aberdeen, or even at Balfour Hospital on the edge of Kirkwall have been taken into town for the first time by a circuitous route to favour their family’s allegiance.
The Men's Ba’ is thrown up at 1pm by an honoured Ba’ veteran or supporter to a crowd of up to two hundred players. The leather ball disappears into the scrum, sometimes for hours, and is keenly watched by excited spectators. There may be twists and turns as one side gains control, and there could be smuggling and fake runs up or down the street to cause confusion among the players. The game is over when the Ba’ reaches the goal of one of the sides and then comes the task of the winning team deciding who is the Ba’ winner. This is an honour given to a player who has played hard over several Ba’ games, not a one-off man of the match award. He gets to take the Ba’ home and it is traditional to throw a party open to anyone who has played.
The Boys’ Ba’ is played at 10am and is open to local youths under 16. While the Ba' is a male bastion nowadays, there have been two Women’s Ba’ games: on Christmas Day 1945 and New Year’s Day 1946. It's widely believed that the idea was scrapped because they were too violent!
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