What is the Ba'?
"It's not so much a game . . .more a civil war."
Every Christmas Eve and Hogmanay,
householders and shopkeepers along Kirkwall's winding central streets
can be seen barricading doors and windows in preparation for the
following days' ba' games.
The Kirkwall Ba' is a mass-football
game played out in the streets of the town every Christmas Day and
New Year's Day.
The game pits two rival "factions"
against each other in a battle to secure a goal and win the game.
Uppies and Doonies
The men and boys of Kirkwall are designated either
"Uppies" or "Doonies", or "Up the Gates"
and "Doon the Gates". This is thought to be a corruption
of the Old Norse gata, meaning road.
Whether you were an Uppie or a Doonie originally
depended upon the individual's place of birth. Those born to the
north of the Cathedral were a Doonies, with Uppies being those born
to the south.
These days, however, family loyalty is usually
more important than the place of birth, with stalwart players playing
for the same side as their father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers
did before them, regardless of where they now live.
ba' itself is a handmade, cork-filled, leather ball. Each game is
played with a new ba', each one handmade by one of a few Orcadian
A finished Men's ba' weighs about 3 lbs with a
circumference of approximately 28 inches. The Boys' Ba' is slightly
The ba' shown right was won by my grandfather,
George Borwick, in the 1950 Christmas Day game. This ba'
is now well over 100 years old, having first been used in 1898.
The game begins
Two ba' games are played every Christmas and New
The first, the Boys' Ba', begins at 10.30am. If
the battle for the Boys' Ba' is long and hard, it is not uncommon
for it, and the Men's Ba', which starts at 1pm, to be running concurrently.
The game begins on Kirkwall's Broad Street, in
the shadow 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 the unenviable
task of getting the ba' into the water of Kirkwall Bay, to the north.
There are no hard and fast rules. Although the
game is fairly rough, tempers are usually held in check and foul
play, or "inappropriate behaviour", is not tolerated. Surprisingly, given the nature of the Ba', serious
injuries to players are fairly rare. More often than not it is usually
unfamiliar spectators who are hurt. When the pack breaks, there
is often not much room to run!
As the cathedral clock strikes 1pm, a specially
chosen individual, 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 pack, the fight for
possession begins, with each side trying to gain ground and carry
the ba' towards their territories.
A tight scrum forms around the leather trophy,
while players on the outside brace themselves against any nearby
buildings to prevent the opposition capturing ground. With the streets now their playing field, a heaving
throng of men push and pulling to try and gain a few metres nearer
their goal. In the cold, winter air, steam hangs above the pack.
But when the pack breaks, chaos erupts, as those
in possession of the ba' try and get as close to their goal as possible
before being stopped. As soon as they are intercepted, however,
the scrum quickly reforms.
This struggle to gain ground means that a typical
game can last for hours. Based on recent years, an average Men's Ba' lasts
about five hours, but this could be anything up to eight hours,
Throughout the game, numerous tactics are used
to achieve the goal. Very often, the majority of players have no idea
where the ba' actually is. This leads to numerous attempts to smuggle
the ba' out of the pack or create fake "breaks" in the
hope that the opposition will follow the wrong players.
A successful break allows players to sprint towards
their goal, making the most of Kirkwall's winding lanes to slow
down pursuers. Players have been known to attempt to reach their
goals via the rooftops.
When the goal is finally
reached, the ba' - itself a coveted trophy - is awarded to a player
in the winning side who has been a notable participant over a number
"It breaks out twice a year at a time when peace and goodwill might be expected to prevail, the warring armies engaging in close combat with a ferocity that precludes respect for person or property.
"Even the law has been known to stand impotent as combatants surged and counter-surged through the environs of the police station, and memory has hardly dimmed the occasion when the local manse was invaded and despoiled. Casualties are high — but who cares?
"Crushed ribs and broken limbs are never enough reasons for the enthusiastic participants to desist from this traditional orgy of Orcadian violence which not even a sheriff's edict could ban — the Kirkwall Ba' Game."