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Chapter 13: The Brutality Of The BA'; “Orkney Stories: A specially commissioned collection by Highland Park”

"If you love a democratic, acrobatic, half-aquatic Game of football, with ten rules, or none at all,
Then you'd better take a train, then a boat to cross the main, And land on New Year's Day at old Kirkwall."
The ba' game is a kind of mass football between the two sections of Kirkwall town, the "Uppies"and "Doonies". David Horne's affectionate description captures the atmosphere of a cherished tradition.


If you happen to be a stranger to Kirkwall town and wish to take part in the New Year's Day Ba', there are two simple rules to be observed. Firstly, dress yourself up in the oldest and most worthless rags you can muster. Strictly speaking, this rule is quite optional. If you care to don an evening suit and tall hat, nobody will object, least of all your tailor. You may dress in a sack if you like. Nobody cares. Either way will cause no comment today, but would decidedly do so tomorrow. Secondly, take your stand in the middle of Broad Street, immediately opposite the Market Cross, a few minutes before one o'clock, and on the stroke of the hour, you will have mastered the rules, science and spirit of the game. If good luck favours you, you will emerge from the contest a couple of hours later, flushed, enlightened, unrecognizable, and breathless, from which it will be seen that the mysteries of the Ba' are much more easily mastered than the intricacies of the Tango.

Speaking for myself, I am an old and seasoned inhabitant. My candid opinion of the ba' is that it is a silly, brutal, degrading spectacle, which ought to be done away with. Why the authorities permit it is a mystery that can never be cleared up. There is neither science, rules, sport nor anything else in it. None! It's perfectly disgusting.

As I said before, the correct dress to don for it is your oldest, most worthless rags. You will consequently surmise, and you will be right, that seeing I am wearing this new suit and new shoes, I, for one, do not intend making an exhibition of myself. They are flimsy things, but I have put them on in deference to the holiday spirit.

Downright silly it is to see a crowd of otherwise decent, sensible, law- abiding folks gather together to watch a contest that would rival a bull fight in sunny Spain. In fact, were it not for the splendid opportunity it gives me of seeing so many of my friends, I should not have stirred a foot from the inglenook this dull winter day.

It wants ten minutes to the hour as we take our stand on the parapet wall opposite the Cross. The waiting crowd, which up till now has been somewhat meagre, grows silently. A couple of minutes to one, and all eyes are turned expectantly to the old gilt dial of St. Magnus. We await the last remaining seconds in impatience; but the clock has seen quite a lot, and is in no hurry. A bunch of stalwarts, most of them coatless and hatless, gather in the middle of the road. Veterans —`Uppies and Doonies' —are there. Amid so much talent it would be invidious to mention names. 'Up wi' her!' they cry impatiently, but the enthusiast who holds the ba', as he stands on the old Cross, waits until the hour is tolled solemnly out, and then we see the shin- ing leather sweep through the air, and disappear until the game is over. The stalwarts vanish, and in their stead a mob of ancient Vikings push and jostle each other as if they were bent on mutual destruction. They surge toward the Town Hall door, and stick like burrs around it. A cloud of steam rises from the struggling mass and grows in volume as the struggle proceeds. After all there is only one rule: Be there at one o'clock. Five hundred men may push on one side, and ten men on the other. Nobody objects. Boys of fourteen stand on the edge, and at length venture in; ancients of eighty push, feebly, it is true, but with all their might; women — old and young — urge their menfolks on, and are often engulfed in the human maelstrom.

The ba' creeps up slowly for a few yards, and, in spite of the little brae, the `Uppies' force their opponents onward towards the south. Fresh men on both sides enter, just for a mere push, and remain for the rest of the game. Suddenly the heart of the thing collapses, and melts away into nothing, but in a moment more regains larger proportions than ever. A yelling conglom-eration of perspiring humanity — tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, lawyers — representatives of every grade of our small community almost — lurches dangerously towards the parapet wall. The uninitiated shudder, as well they may, for visions of broken legs and arms, lint and bandages, rise vividly before them, but the audience looks on with complete indifference. They are concerned with the fortunes of the ba'. Marvel of marvels! Their splendid optimism is justified — no bones are broken. The players push on, regardless of the fact that they are being squeezed out of shape on the low wall. But stay! Hands and voices are raised: 'Back! back' rings out over the hubbub. The game halts for a few moments and a limp bundle is dragged out of the mass. He is covered with mud, his clothes are in tatters, and although I quite probably know him in everyday life, I must look twice ere I know him now. His face is lividly purple, his eyes, or what can be seen of them, are strained and wild looking. He breathes with effort. In a couple of minutes he is away again, as enthusiastic as ever.

But stalwarts there are who are not 'in the ba'.' You can easily recognise them by the look of intense excitement on their faces, and by the fact that they have on their best clothes. Mrs Stalwart and, it may be, some of the young stalwarts are with them, but flesh and blood has its limits. As they see quite plainly that their side —whichever it may be —only requires the assistance of, say , half a dozen fresh men, they leave their womenfolk and break away just as they are, and in turn become merged in the struggling mass. Neither age, nor sex, nor rank, nor silk hat, nor white waistcoat, nor swallowtail coat, nor any other thing is able to keep a true Kirkwallian out of the ba' once he thinks his side is in desperate straits. The only way he can keep out of it is either to ascend Wideford Hill or go round the Head of Work while the game is in progress. Strangers, even, have been known to take a plunge in to the excitement of the moment. But for supreme ecstasy give me the face of an old Kirkwall boy home on holiday as he is swept into the melee.

The ba' at last reaches MacGregor's corner. It seems it will end in the `Basin' after all! Really it is a thousand pities to see it go like this. Just a few fresh men and the tide can be turned, 'Come on boys!' I cry. 'Just a shove and we'll do it! Up with her, lads! Hurrah!' In spite of all I've said, I'm not the man to see my own side lose for want of a little help (for I'm an `Uppie'). Some other day the ba' may be pushed into the Harbour and hoisted top- mast by the `Doonies', but not this day if I can be of any use. And you can't blame me. A lot more follow my example, or I follow theirs, and we manage by heroic work to regain lost ground and get the ba' through into Victoria Street. The railings of the National Bank tremble beneath the strain, but eventually we pass all danger points, and land at the old Castle —it used to be Burgar's Bay —whence I emerge breathless, but jubilant. 'Is this your hat?' enquires a friend, holding a lump of mud gingerly between finger and thumb. It may have been anything for aught I can say, but now it resembles nothing with which I am familiar. Never mind! To be hatless is quite the fashion nowadays and, after all, I am merely anticipating summer by a few months. I look at my watch. It is now three o'clock.

Yes! I'm afraid my clothes are past their first youth, new though they may be, and the less said about my shoes the better. But stop the Ba'! Nonsense! I freely admit there is no science in it: no rules, no skill — nothing but the primitive joy of 'carefree activity' —yet it is carried through in a very sporting spirit, with a few exceptions; and, again; what would New Year's Day in Kirkwall be without it? What about my clothes and my dignity? My dear sir, these considerations are nonexistent on New Year's Day. There is no dignity but that of good humour. Talk about the call of the wild? Why, it's not half so powerful as the call of the New Year's Day Ba'. Brutality, indeed!


Written by David Horne


The text is an excerpt from "Orkney Stories: A specially commissioned collection by Highland Park" (pp. 68 - 72), published 1995 by Matthew Gloag & Son Limited under the commission of Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

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