The Ba: Spot the Ba
The Ba is the oldest ball game in the world. Played since Viking times, it predates football and rugby. With no rules, it's not for the faint-hearted. Sharon Stephen shares her memories of the not-so-beautiful game.
I can't imagine spending Christmas Day any other way than heading down to see the Ba. For Kirkwall people, it's huge. To win it is a huge honour, especially if your families been in the Ba for generations and generations. It's probably the highest acclaim you can get on the island.
The way it works is that people spit into two teams called the Uppies and Doonies, based on which side of Market Cross they live on. The men meet in the middle of town and when the clock strikes one, a ball called the Ba is thrown into the crowd. the Doonies have to get it into the harbour and the Uppies try to get it to a wall on the other side of town, by any means possible.
The men get into huge scrums, pushing each other for hours on end. Or underhand tactics are used. The Ba has even been hidden: it's been found in buildings, in people's houses, up people's chimneys. There are stories of women grabbing it and hiding it in prams. Anything goes. Basically, it's like rugby but without any rules. A game can last anything between three minutes and nine hours. Then, whenever the Ba gets to its destination, there's a fight between the members of the victorious team to decide which player is the winner, who gets to keep the Ba.
There's a passionate rivalry between the two teams. During the match there are flying fists, but it's all good natured and after the festive season, they are all best friends again. People are really loyal to their team though. I remember when a really staunch Doonie woman married an Uppie. After her husband won and had a huge party to celebrate, everyone was thrown out because she was so upset about losing.
All the men in my family have played the Ba. When I was little, I used to cry when my Dad went off to play, because he would always get hurt. It's a duty though and a really important part of our Orkney tradition. My Doonie family goes back for generations. There was a women's Ba once, in the 50s, but it was finished because it was too rough. People were using knitting needles and pans as weapons. It was pretty extreme.
Folklore says that the Ba has been going since Viking times. It started when a Viking lord had his head cut off and put into a trophy. Then they played with it and whoever won got to keep the head. It's one of oldest ball games in the world and we're really proud of it.