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
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."