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The Ba is thrown into the air as the Uppies and Doonies fight for possession.

Rough and ready!

Photos courtesy of Charles Tait.


Features Title


The Kirkwall Ba’ is a rough and ready game played through the streets of Orkney twice a year and it is definitely not for the faint hearted!
Christmas and New Year are celebrated the world over in many different ways with lots of varied traditions but nowhere are they celebrated in quite as boisterous fashion as they are in Orkney.

Every Christmas and New Year’s day shopkeepers and householders in Kirkwall board up their windows and doors in preparation for the traditional ba’ game involving several hundred players and crowd.

The ba’ is a kind of street rugby that starts at Mercat Cross in front of the cathedral when the ba’ is thrown up into the crowd at one o’clock and the two teams the Uppies – those born south of the cathedral - and the Doonies – those from the north side of the cathedral – begin their epic battle.

The aim of the game is to get the ball into the "goal" – the Uppies aiming to get the ball up against a wall in the south of the town and the Doonies hoping to put the ball into the harbour at the north.

Tactics are quite simple really with a huge scrum building around the player with the ball in the middle and each side trying to manipulate it towards their goal while the other tries to halt their path.

Sometimes breaks are made from the scrum and the ba’ moves quickly down the winding lanes of Kirkwall before the opposite team regroup and halt its path once more. The ba’ has even been sneaked through houses or across rooftops in a bid to win!

There are no rules in the ba’ and although it tends to be rough and tumble there is an air of courtesy among the players who have to heave and push for hours on end to bring the game to a conclusion, which often doesn’t happen until early evening.

When one team finally manages to reach their goal the ba’ - a cork dust filled leather ball specially hand crafted for each game – is awarded to a player from the winning side and takes pride of place in their home.

The exact origins of the ba’ are unclear but it is thought to have evolved from early Yule celebrations and is the only mass football game left of the many which were once held across Scotland and England.

Its known the ba’ has been played in Orkney since at least the mid 17th century but the style of the game has changed over the years and originally it was kicked and rarely handled whereas in the modern game it is picked up and carried.

The New Year Ba’ was the most important game for many years until in the late 19th century the Christmas Day Ba’ started to gain in popularity and now both are important occasions.

Over the centuries many legends have sprung up around the ba’ with the most popular and well known of these being the story of the evil tyrant Tusker, who had prominent protruding canine teeth.

The evil Tusker was defeated by a young Orcadian man who rowed across the Pentland Firth to track him down and returned to Orkney on horseback with Tusker’s severed head tied to his saddle.

But during the journey the dead Tusker’s protruding teeth punctured the man’s leg and the wound became infected killing him. The legend says before he died the Orcadian managed to stagger into Mercat Cross where he threw the tyrant’s head into a crowd of townsfolk who were so outraged they kicked the head through the streets in anger.

There is also a suggestion that the ba’ may have originated as a fertility rite as it was believed that if the Uppies won they would be rewarded with a bountiful harvest whereas if the Doonies were victorious there would be plentiful catches of fish.

Whatever the true origins of the Kirkwall Ba’ it has become an integral part of the Orcadian calendar and is sure to remain an important occasion for centuries to come.