Kirkwall Ba’

The greatest team sport ever?

Adil, 2–28–17

It’s a cold, crisp Christmas morning. While most folks are holed up at home getting warm and snuggly with their families, shopkeepers and homeowners in Kirkwall, Scotland, are boarding up their doors and windows.

Ba’ is coming

It is time for the annual game of Ba’. Ba’ is a form of medieval football (aka mob football or village football) played by huge teams representing two parts of a town. Ba’ is the name for the games played in the Orkney islands just north of mainland Scotland, though other forms of medieval football are played all over the globe.

Ba’ is a 400 year old sport with no rules. The first documented game was in 1650 (though some claim that it was played before records existed), when the game was played more like soccer. In 1850, the streets were deemed too narrow to play with large groups, so they started using their hands. The game has been played like this ever since.

Back to Kirkwall — here, the game has a particularly rich tradition and history. The town has a population of about 9,000. The annual Ba’ games are played on both Christmas and New Year’s Day, with a boys’ game for participants up to age 15 and the men’s game for everyone older. So, every holiday season, there are four total games.

Boyos prepare for battle

The town is split into the Uppies and the Doonies. This terminology stems from “up the gates” or “doon the gates”, referring to a family’s allegiance with respect to the location of St. Magnus Cathedral. Historically, those born north of the church were Doonies, and those born south of it were Uppies. However, after a hospital was built in the south in the 1950s, most babies were born there, giving the Uppies an unfair advantage. Since then, allegiance is mostly decided by who your father and grandfather played for. For non-native Orcadians with no family history in the game, the team is decided by which route they first took upon arriving in Kirkwall. In recent years, the number of participants has increased due to influx of more people from surrounding towns (enabled by improved transportation), but this is generally frowned upon by the local citizens of Kirkwall.

Okay, so what is the actual game of Ba’? Essentially, you are simply trying to get the 3.5 pound leather ball — known as the Ba’ — to your goal.

the Ba’

There are no really concrete guidelines besides that. The goal for the Uppies is Mackinson’s Corner (literally the wall of a random house), and the goal for the Doonies is to hurl the Ba’ into the Kirkwall Bay. Here’s a map:


Each goal is about 500 meters away from the Cathedral, which is the starting point.

Ultimately, the game can involve up to 350 players at any given time. It looks similar to rugby, with most of the game spent in huge scrums. There is huge variation in regards to match duration — it can be anywhere from a few minutes to 8+hours, just depending on the day. Most of the time, it looks like games are between 3–5 hours.

Of course, there are several traditions involved. The boys game always begins at 10:30am, with the men’s game following at 1pm. The games always begin on Broad Street, in front of St. Magnus Cathedral, where an honored individual — usually someone with a strong history in the game of Ba’ — standing in front of the Merket Cross tosses the ball into the huge crowd to get the game started.

Waiting for the Ba’ to be launched

The topography (topology?) of the town lends to some necessary strategizing, since different streets in Kirkwall have different slopes and twists which can be advantageous if used properly. This quote describes some examples:

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.

Alas, when one team finally reaches their goal, the game ends. However, there is also the ceremonial awarding of the Ba’ to a single MVP, often a well-liked person with a ton of experience in the game — usually at least 20 years. It is a huge deal for these folks to win the Ba’. Winners hang the ball in their living room window for all to see, forever. Individual winners are awarded in both the boys’ and men’s game, with a special few being winners of both. At the end of the game, apparently people usually argue for a while before deciding the individual winner, and this source says they actually have a separate scrum for about 5 potential individual winners, where the first one to hoist the Ba’ over their head wins. This year, that scrum lasted 38 minutes… with just 5 people. You can see how 350 people could lead to a much longer match.

This year’s New Year’s Day winner, 55-year old Uppie Derek Robb, hoists the Ba’ overhead

After the individual winner is chosen, he is obliged to host a party for all participants at his house that same night, with celebrations lasting well past sunrise. I have no idea how a dude throws a spontaneous banger for 350 people.

The main prize is bragging rights. Whoever wins more games rubs it in the face of the opposing team all year long. Locals scoff when outsiders mention potentially including monetary prizes — these dudes just wanna ball.

Injuries are of course inevitable, including serious ones like broken ribs. Some fights also occur. But, all things considered, the game is surprisingly civil, which stems from the extreme camaraderie among players. If someone gets hurt or passes out in the scrum, the game usually stops so that they can be pulled out. “Foul play” is not tolerated, tempers are quickly extinguished by fellow players, and grudges are not held — so it seems like an additional, unspoken “rule” is to not be an ass.

After WWII and in the spirit of equality, there were 2 women’s games played in 1945–6. But they were never played again; town lore apparently says the women were too violent, while others blame low turnout and scorn from the men. Anyway, today women are still invested, as they join throngs of spectators cheering on their teams from around the scrum and above the scrum, through windows and on roofs.

In case you want to visit tiny lil Kirkwall to join in the fun, know that you’ll have to practice your Scottish accent — locals are strongly against “adventure tourists” joining their games because these Scots have exceedingly strong senses of tradition and loyalty.

Here’s a dope trailer to get you pumped though, plus you get to hear these ridiculously thick Scottish accents:


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