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Ba' game, Orkney

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No doubt you'll know about this already but one particular custom we have in Orkney is the Ba'. Although the ba' is played on Christmas Day and New Year's Day every year, it's origin's were probably in New Year's Celebrations (The New Year's day Ba' was originally the only one of any importance until 1880 at which point the Christmas Ba' began to achieve some stature.)

On Xmas Eve and Hogmanay each year all the householders and shopkeepers along Kirkwall's main streets barricade up their premises in preparation for the ba'. The idea of the "game" is that the men of the town are either "Uppies" or "Doonies" and fight over a cork filled leather ball. The Uppies must touch the Ba against a wall in the South End of the Town whereas the Doonies must get the Ba into the water of the Harbour at the North. The streets are their playing field.

A typical game can go on for hours with a heaving throng of men pushing and pulling to try and gain a few metres ground. When the crowd breaks the man with the Ba' will try and get as close to the "goal" as possible before being stopped again. Numerous tactics are used. Players have been known to smuggle the ba through Kirkwall's winding lanes and even attempt to reach their goal via the rooftops.

The origins of the Ba' are uncertain but it may stem from the tradition of the old year fighting the New. Numerous legends grew up around it's origin, one being that it stemmed from the defeat of an evil tyrant named Tusker. A young Orcadian man rowed across the Pentland Firth and travelled on horseback until he met and defeated Tusker (so called because of his protruding teeth). The boy severed Tusker's head and was taking it back to Orkney tied to his saddle when one of Tusker's teeth punctured the Earl's leg. The wound became infected and the boy died, but not before making it to the Mercat Cross outside Kirkwall's cathedral and throwing the head into the midst of the gathered townsfolk.

The people of Kirkwall were so outraged that they kicked the severed head through the streets in anger - hence the legendary (but historically untrue) origin of the Ba'. Interestingly this tale parallels almost exactly a historical campaign by the Orkney Earl Sigurd, who travelled to the mainland and defeated his enemy Maelbrigte Tusk, a Scottish Earl. Sigurd defeated Maelbrigte and his men and strapped their severed heads to the saddles of their mounts. Sigurd spurred his horse and Maelbrigte's tooth punctured the Earl's leg. This wound poisoned and Sigurd died and was buried on the mainland.

It's interesting to note the severed head connection with the Ba' and the Celtic motif of the Beheading Game - most well known via "Gawain and the Green Knight". One theory as to the origins of the beheading game motif is that it is all that remains of an ancient new year ritual - the challenge of the new year (Gawain beheads the knight representing the old year and symbolically becomes the "New Year" - he is then told by the beheaded knight that he must return in a year at which time his head will be struck off) to the old year. Gawain through the head of the Green Knight to the watching people in the court of Camelot who kicked the severed head as it rolled around the ground towards them. I wonder about the connection?

Another possibility of its origin lies in the Orkney legend of the Sea Mither (the Benign Spirit of the Sea) and her nemesis Teran (spirit of Winter). These two battle twice per annum - 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. The Ba' has been likened to these struggles and possibly originated as a ritual contest based on folk memories of the strife between these two characters.

More info at

There is also a lot of information on the Ba' game in Tocher 53.

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Q-HTML V3.4 by Craig Cockburn created this page on 19-Jun-2012 at 08:06:29