Christmas in Orkney
OK, so we have the usual: tree, stockings, turkey etc. But we also have the Ba’ Game.
Christmas Day there are two games, held in Kirkwall, the main town in the Islands. One is for Boys, one for Men and each game has two sides, the Uppies and the Doonies. Uppies were born on one side of Kirkwall and Doonies on the other side – as the maternity ward of the hospital is only on one side of the town, it now applies to where people live or first came into the town. I’m an Uppie!
Object of the game: to get the ball to your goal, using hands, feet or anything else that’s handy – though no weapons are allowed.
No. per side: however many decide to join in (about 100 in total usually, though can be a couple of hundred sometimes).
Length of play: until someone wins – almost never less that 2 hrs, sometimes 4 or 5.
Goals: Uppies have to touch the ball to the wall opposite the church at the south end of the main street, Doonies to dunk the ball in the harbour at the north end of the main street. Distance between the goals? About a mile.
Play: Someone is given the honour of throwing up the ba’ (hand made, leather ball which gets given to the best player of the winning side once the game is over). At noon, they throw it up in the air and it comes to land somewhere in the melee of folk standing in front of the Cathedral. Game is vaguely like rugby, without the rules – you can kick or carry the ball, hide it under your jersey etc. Heaps of men form a scrum until someone manages to smuggle the ball out of the group and breaks away with it, when eveyone charges after it – of course there are dummy breaks to get the opposition out of the way – sometimes almost everyone end up in the wrong place after a particularly convincing dummy. Then it’s up alley ways, over walls, blocking the main road, more scrums, passes back and forward etc. In theory, no-one goes onto private land but stay in the public streets and alleys (even the main street is no more than two cars widths wide so it gets blocked a lot).
Then there are the spectators, standing at the edges of the pack screaming at their chosen side to do something – one year, I even remember an old lady bashing any player who got within striking distance with her walking stick.
Surprisingly there is rarely much damage, to property or players, and it’s a great way of working off Christmas dinner and warming yourself up. The game has been played for centuries and long may it continue.
By the way, in case you’ve heard that New Year is the usual Scottish Celebration, rather than Christmas, We hold the same thing again on Ne’er Day – and we’re not Scottish anyway, we’re Orcadian!