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  The Kirkwall Ba'

The origin of the Ba'

Tusker's HeadAlthough we know the Kirkwall Ba' is the last of the mass Yuletide football games once common throughout Orkney, little else is actually known about the early history of the game and its origins.

We don't know, for example, how old the game actually is, only that it is at least 300 years old. Prior to this, the game is shrouded in folklore that tries to explain its development and significance.

The best-known of these tales, has it that the game dates from the days of the Viking Earldom, and commemorates the defeat of an evil Scottish tyrant, named Tusker.

Tusker and Sigurd

Tusker, so called because of his protruding teeth, was said to have been killed by a young Orcadian man, who after rowing across the Pentland Firth, travelled south to confront him.

After defeating the tyrant, the boy severed Tusker's head. In preparation for the ride home to Orkney, the lad tied the head to his saddle. But during the journey, one of Tusker's teeth scratched the boy's leg.

The wound became infected and the boy died, but not before staggering heroically to Kirkwall's Mercat Cross and throwing the severed head into the midst of the gathered townsfolk.

The Kirkwall folk were so enraged that they kicked Tusker's head through the streets in anger - hence the legendary, but definitely historically incorrect, origin of the Ba'.

The historical parallels

The folktale parallels almost exactly the historical campaign by Orkney's first Earl - Earl Sigurd Eysteinsson - as detailed in the Orkneyinga Saga. Sigurd travelled south to Scotland, where he met and defeated his enemy Maelbrigte Tusk, an opposing Scottish Earl.

Sigurd strapped Maelbrigte's severed head to the saddle of his mount but when he spurred his horse, Maelbrigte's tooth scratched the Earl's leg.

The wound poisoned, killing Sigurd who was then buried on Scottish soil.