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  The Kirkwall Ba'

The origin of the Ba' - the Beheading Game
Death and rebirth?

Veteran Ba' player, Bobby Leslie, prior to the throw-up of the 2001 New Year's Day Ba'

Given the importance of the Ba' to the Orkney's old midwinter celebrations, it is interesting to note the connection between the severed head element of the Tusker tale and the Celtic motif of the "Beheading Game" - best known in the Arthurian tale of Gawain and the Green Knight.

One theory as to the origin of the Beheading Game motif is that it is the remnant of a pagan midwinter ritual in which the New Year symbolically challenges the Old Year and is put to death.

So, in Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who represents the old year, thus becoming symbolic of the triumphant "New Year". After decapitation, the Green Knight's head rolls among the watching crowd, who kick the grisly trophy around the gathering.

But the Green Knight does not die.

Instead, his headless body picks up the head and walks away - but not before informing Gawain that he must return in one year when his head will be struck off.

In other words, the triumph of the New Year will inevitably be followed by its death.

So could the "conflict" between the two sides of the Ba' game be a remnant of an ancient symbolic game that represented the end of the old year and the coming of the new?

The conflict between winter and summer

Similar to the eternal conflict between the old and new year is the Orcadian legend of the Sea Mither and her nemesis, Teran.

Representing the spirits of summer and winter, these two battled for the supremacy of their watery realm twice each year - once at the spring equinox, at which time Teran is defeated and bound, and again at the autumn equinox, when Teran breaks free and banishes the Sea-Mither.

In his book The Kirkwall Ba', author John Robertson compares the ba' to the struggles between these two spirits, and suggests the game may have originated as a ritual contest representing the strife between the two characters.

An ancient fertility rite?

Just as the mass football games could have had symbolic association with winter and summer, one tradition surrounding the Ba' may hint at its connection with fertility.

It was once thought that if the Ba' went up, Kirkwall would be rewarded with a good harvest, whereas a Doonie win would see bountiful catches of fish.

This is reflected in the old rhyme:

"Up wi' the Ba' boys,
Up wi' the Ba'
An' ye'll get cheap meal
An' tatties an' a'."

This belief seems to have survived through to the late nineteenth century, when, after a period of 29 years (1846-1875) of Doonie New Year victories, the Uppies finally broke the Doonie domination and the ba' went up.

After the game, an old spectator was recorded as saying that as it was 1846 - the first year of Doonie domination - that potato blight appeared in Orkney, "we'll surely hae guid tatties this year, after the ba' has gaen up."

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