KIRKWALL - THE BA GAME
Every Christmas and New Year's Day the "Ba'" is contested in the streets of Kirkwall. The game has been played in its present form since about 1850, but is in fact much older. A looser form of football had occurred for a long time before 1850 on the "Ba' Lea". Undoubtedly, ball games have been played for a very long time. There are records from Greek and Roman times of ball games being played, and mass football seems to have been played in Roman- occupied Britain. The French game of "soule" was very like the Kirkwall Ba', according to contemporary descriptions, but died out about the turn of the century, partly due to official suppression.
Street football was popular in the past in Britain and France and was mostly played on Shrove Tuesday. However it only now survives in a few towns in Scotland and England, such as Jedburgh, Ashbourne and Workington. Where it has survived the game has become like the Kirkwall one in most cases, with fixed goals and more hand than foot play.
Kirkwall, the two sides are the Uppies and the Doonies, or more
correctly, "Up-the-Gates" and "Doon-the-Gates" from Old Norse
gata (path or road). Originally the side any individual played
on was decided by whether he (or she) was born up or doon the
gate, but with recent housing developments, this tends to be decided
by family loyalties nowadays. Which side ferryloupers (incomers)
and people from the isles or rural areas take is either determined
by the route taken on their first arrival in Kirkwall, by family
influence, or by the side their friends play on.
The Men's Ba' is thrown up at 13:00 at the Mercat Cross on the Kirk Green opposite the Cathedral, usually by an older Ba' stalwart, but occasionally by some public figure, with up to 200 players eagerly awaiting the chime of the bells. The Ba' disappears into the scrum, which may spend some considerable time on Broad Street. Much exciting surging and turning play often occurs on this wider part of the street, which can frequently determine the final outcome.
Occasionally the Ba' appears out of the scrum and someone makes a dash through the crowds of spectators. To the casual onlooker this can happen at any moment, but the seasoned Ba'- watcher can often see what is happening long before the Ba' suddenly erupts. Breaks sometimes occur on Broad Street, but can occur anywhere where one side gains sufficient control of part of the scrum.
The Doonies have the benefit of a flat push to Albert Street, while the Uppies have a hard push up to the top of Tankerness Lane. The game may also go down one of the flagstones lanes, or down Castle Street onto the open Junction Road. Once there either side may gain the upper hand by means of a smuggle and run, or the scrum may become immobile in one of the many closes and yards.
However if the Uppies manage to enter Victoria Street, or the Doonies Albert Street, the opposition have a much harder time, due to the narrowness and the press of often many hundreds of keen spectators. All the same the Ba' may be restricted for several hours in any of the many lanes and neither side ever gives up the struggle until the goal is reached.
The Doonies goal is the sea, normally within the Basin of the Harbour, but so long as it is immersed in the salt water of Kirkwall Bay, the Ba' has gone doon. The Uppies must round the Long, or Mackinson's corner at the junction of Main Street with New Scapa Road, opposite the Catholic Church. Once Up or Doon, lengthy argument often ensues before a popular winner is acclaimed. When the winner is finally decided, many players repair to the his house, where much needed refreshment rapidly appears. To Ba' enthusiasts the ultimate honour is to have the trophy of the game, the Ba itself, hanging in the living room window.
The boys' Ba' is thrown up at 10.30 and is open to boys under 16. It can last for a few minutes, or several hours and often has not been resolved when the men's Ba' is thrown up. The boys too elect the winner after each game. Many boys gain their apprenticeship to the adult game and go on to become men's Ba' winners in the future.
In Christmas 1945 and New Year 1946 the spirit of equality prevailing after the Second World War encouraged Women's Ba's to be held for the first and only times so far. Apparently the menfolk did not like their ladies to be taking part in such a violent kind of game and the experiment has to date not been repeated. All the same many women take a strong part in the game, mostly with their voices, but quite often by pushing. Girls frequently appear in the boys' Ba' as well.
The town takes on an appearance of seige during the period of the Ba', with shutters and barricades on all the shops and houses on possible Ba' routes. Cars come near at their very real peril, while young children and elderly people are well advised to keep clear. However, due to the great sense of the camaraderie of the game, very few players get hurt badly so that if the scrum collapses, or someone is hurt, or passes out, the game stops to allow them to be extricated.
At one time there was concern that the Ba' might die out and it certainly has peaks and troughs of enthusiasm. At present the tradition is in no danger of dying out and seems to go from strength to strength. In the past various authorities have tried to ban it or relocate it from the street. It seems that any such attempts are doomed to total failure for the foreseeable future. The tradition is very well supported and apart from the game itself, is a great social occasion for all who participate, whether as players or spectators.