It’s one of the world’s oldest known sporting events, but to an outsider, it just looks like a brawl. Which is half the fun.
Look on Kirkwall’s main street on Christmas Eve and you’ll see shopkeepers hammering planks across doors and residents clearing cars from the street. With a population of around 7,600, Kirkwall is the biggest town of Orkney, an archipelago off the northeast tip of mainland Scotland. Strong winds are commonplace here, but these precautions aren’t about the weather. They’re about the Kirkwall Ba’ Game, one of the planet’s oldest sporting events — and the one most easily mistaken for a riot.
Every Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, Kirkwall’s two teams — if teams is the right word for ?hundreds of men with no visibly shared markings — meet at the Market Cross on the Kirk Green. When the town’s cathedral bells chime 1 o’clock, a round leather ball, or ba’, is tossed above what instantly becomes a heaving scrum of men in boots, jeans and rugby shirts. To win, the Uppies must get the ba’ to a specific wall in the south part of town, while the Doonies must dunk it in Kirkwall Bay to the north. First goal wins — and games last anywhere from a few minutes to a whopping nine hours.
Watching a Ba’ Game is like trying to keep track of a brawl or a carnival. In the low midwinter light, steam rises from the heaving mass of bodies as the players clamber over one another toward where they think the ba’ might be, though most of them have no real idea. It might be at the center of the melee or, when the scrum breaks, it could be discovered that the ba’ has been smuggled away. Then the chase is on, spilling down side streets, even onto rooftops, until finally a goal is scored. After that, there’s another (smaller) tussle to determine which member of the winning team gets to keep the ba’. Then, everyone goes back to the victor’s place and gets drunk.
Firm records of the Ba’ date back to the mid-1800s, but it likely began in early medieval times as one of many European “mass football” games that involved whole villages. Others, including locals, date it back to Kirkwall’s foundation as a Viking settlement in the 11th century and claim it began with townsfolk kicking around the head of a tyrant. “It was undoubtedly played in Norse times,” says Charles Tait, a Kirkwall native who has photographed the game since 1977. “According to tradition, it was the bishop’s men against the [Viking] earl’s men.”
Injury is frequent, with players known to black out, come to, take a swig of whiskey and then get back in the game. “Broken ribs are quite common,” Tait adds. “Occasionally, there’s a broken arm or leg, or a cracked skull, but everybody’s very conscious of the potential danger. When the scrum collapses, everyone backs off.” Property damage is also frequent — a wall came down in 1988, and in 1969, harbor railings collapsed, sending players and spectators tumbling into the bay (no one was hurt).
It’s little surprise that mass football is now rare. “In most places, it was suppressed,” Tait says, “but we’re very independent-minded here and don’t take kindly to being told what to do by authority. All moves to ban it have failed, and they will all fail because, apart from being a game, it’s a major community event.”