With its Nordic archaeological treasures, 12th-century cathedral, two palaces and 200-year-old distillery, Kirkwall is fiercely proud — as are all the Orkneys. Many Orcadians (as residents are known) don’t even consider themselves Scottish. In this context, it’s nearly impossible for an outsider to grasp quite what the Ba’ Game means to its residents. Part of local culture since time immemorial, it’s something everyone grows up with and many families take intensely to heart.
A hard-won ba’ is a cherished trophy: the size of a basketball and double the weight, each is handmade by local craftsmen over four days. Come game day, childhood friends can find themselves on opposite sides of the scrum, spitting fury, but the rivalry evaporates as quickly as it formed. “It’s very much Uppies and Doonies before and during the game,” Tait says. “But after the match, they’re the best of mates. The losing side comes to the party as much as the winning side.”
Team membership traditionally was dictated by whether players were born up or down the road from the cathedral. Today, it’s based on family heritage — usually father to son, though sometimes a mother’s lineage holds sway. “If her father and grandfather and great-grandfather played as Doonies,” Tait reports, “her son will probably play as a Doonie, even if the dad’s an Uppie.”
Tait has never played himself, but his uncle was a keen participant and his cousin,? Leslie Tait, has been playing since 1959, when, at the age of 9, he took part in the Boys’ Ba’ for the under-16s. “It was always something that was interesting and exciting for a young boy,” Leslie remembers. “Each year, you get a bit bigger, a bit more involved. And it gets richer each time you play it.”Leslie has barely missed a year since and, in his prime, was part of the Doonie team that enjoyed a winning streak in the ’80s. “A side sometimes gets domination because they have more good players in their mid-20s and 30s,” he notes. “You’re only playing twice a year, so it takes a long time to reach your peak.” He’s had his share of bruised ribs, and he’s seen some changes. “There’s probably twice the number of players now, so there’s a bit more coordination.” And less drinking. “[In the past], there might have been some guys taking part who were a bit the worse for wear. Now, people are more aware of safety. And if somebody’s too drunk, their team might lose an advantage.”
At 62, Leslie still plays. “Well, playing as loosely defined,” he chuckles. “There’s a gradual transition from being a main player to having a supporting role.” Older players double as coaches, directing play as much as participating. The more games you attend, the more peculiar — even underhanded — things you see. “One time, in the ’70s, the ba’ was actually being dropped in the harbor,” recalls Charles Tait, “and this Uppie caught it as it fell and stuck it up his jumper. As everyone was looking for it, he strolled off and touched the wall.” There was an even sneakier gambit last New Year, after a young Uppie grabbed the ba’ and scrambled up a side street. “A couple of guys came along in a car, and they jumped in and drove to the goal,” Tait reports. “It counts, but that person will never quite be regarded as having properly won his ba’.”
In recent years, the Ba’ has attracted more attention from overseas and even a few intrepid foreign participants. “Some American football players have played,” Tait says, including a friend of Tait’s own son. “He was quite small and slight. He just disappeared into the middle and came out the other side 20 minutes later and had no idea what was going on.” Other visitors include the makers of a forthcoming documentary about the origins of sport, called Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play. Along with visiting Brazilian favelas and Congolese villages, the film crew also trekked to Kirkwall to catch the legendary game in action. “Ach, they were OK,” Tait says, “but I’m sure they didn’t have much idea what was going on either.”
For all the trouble outsiders have in fathoming the meaning of the Kirkwall Ba’ Game, a final irony comes at the expense of the local hero of the hour, Uppie or Doonie. “It’s very expensive to win the game,” Tait notes. “The winner is expected to entertain all and sundry for days to come.”
BEN WALTERS is a writer and a filmmaker based in London. He contributes to The Guardian and Sight & Sound, and he is Time Out London’s cabaret editor. He avoids contact sports.