It's approaching that time of year for us to board up the windows of our Albert Street visitor experience store in preparation for one of Orkney's longest standing and most popular festive traditions. The Ba’ Game has been a fixture of Christmas Day and New Years Day in Kirkwall since 1850 in its present form, but in truth for a lot longer. Apart from the fact that there’s a ball involved – and a 5lb handmade one at that – it bears little resemblance to any modern or organised ball sport. There are no rules beyond the Uppies’ aim to touch the Ba’ against a wall in the south end of the town and the Doonies’ aim to get the Ba’ into the water of Kirkwall Bay to the north.
Seven stalwart members of the Highland Park distillery team are playing this year – James McConnachie, Keith Moar, Don Gray and David Coates for the Doonies, and Sean Dearness, Morgan Foubister and Ronnie Paterson for the Uppies. We asked them to take time out from their rigorous training programme (!) to give us some insight into the game…
So why Uppies and Doonies?
A good question. Originally the teams were the ‘Up the Gates’ and the ‘Doon the Gates’ – ‘Gates’ is believed to be an adaptation of the Norse word ‘gata’ meaning ‘road’. Those born to the north of St Magnus Cathedral are Doonies while those born to the south are Uppies. However, these days family loyalty is more important, so players will tend to play for the same team as their father, grandfather or great-grandfather, regardless of where they were actually born.
How many people play?
Usually between 300 – 400 people take part – there’s no limit to numbers, just rock up on the day and join in! (Unless you’re female that is – there’s no longer a Women’s Ba’.) It’s a real community tradition and families come out to watch and cheer the players on. The Boy’s Ba’ (15 years and below) starts at 10am and the Men’s Ba’ at 1.00pm so people tend to get Christmas Dinner out of the way the day before.
Do you put in much training?
These days, some people do train a bit – there’s a degree of fitness required to play all day. The shortest known Ba’ Game lasted only five minutes but the longest went on for seven hours. There used to be a pre-pub ritual but times have changed and it’s a serious business now!
Any special Ba’ attire?
Steel toe-cap boots or heavy duty shoes along with shin pads are a must. A sports top is highly recommended because it gets hot very quickly thanks to all the bodies playing. Leave your coat at home!
And how do the winners celebrate?
The Ba’ winner (selected by the winning team and not necessarily the person who actually touched the Ba’ to wall or water) hosts a Ba’ party at his house afterwards where players celebrate with a cup of tea followed by a trip to the pub.
Keith: A bowl of tomato soup mid-morning to fuel up before the Ba’.
Morgan: Avoid the walls or you’ll get squashed – stick the bigger players out there.
Don: A big Scottish breakfast… minus the mushrooms!
James: A big bowl of porridge for breakfast.
David: Avoid the centre of the game!