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Uppies and Doonies jockey for position before the beginning of the Ba'. That's Evan on the right with the white collar.
The Old Ba' Game
Remote Scottish islands
Scotch as quasi-Gatorade
Quasi-rioting as fertility ritual and community festival
Yours truly being scared sh*tless by first-hand encounters with above
I didn't know much about the Ba' before I arrived in Kirkwall, aside from assorted anecdotes of mayhem and destruction.
In photos I've seen, Graeme looks very much like a giant, and not necessarily the gentle kind.
It's the family men here who are the athletic superstars.
The charming and true tale of a rugby-like game involving 200 Scottish men, a barricaded town, and a custom-made leather ball that may or may not symbolize a severed head. Fun for the whole family . . . really.
Published in THE SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL >> December 2006
Evan Monkman is trying to explain an obscure rule of the Ba', and he seems hurt that I don't understand.
The twice-yearly game is being played tomorrow, and he is adamant that I cheer for his team, though I've just told him I'm unsure of my loyalties. After all, the longstanding tradition is that you support -- or play for -- the team representing the area in which you live. I'm staying with my parents, who are six months into a sort of "Year in Provence," but on a blustery Scottish island, and they reside in the north part of town, near the harbor. Clearly Doonie territory.
"No, no, Douglas. Family," says Evan.
He gestures to my parents, indicating their friendship, and gives me a put-upon look as he starts to exit their flat. His lean face is all earnestness, the suddenly upright posture of his athletic 48-year-old frame punctuating the sincerity of his words.
"We're practically family. Ye must cheer for the Uppies."
"Right," I relent. "Family. Uppies."
A mischievous smirk creeps across Evan's face, and he heads out the door, back to the fish-and-chips shop he owns 20 feet down the alley.
I'm starting to realize that there's a bit more to the Ba'-- a game sort of like rugby, but not really -- than hundreds of burly Scotsmen beating each other to a haggis-like pulp.
* * *
I've timed my trip to Kirkwall, the largest city in the Orkney Islands, to coincide with the spectacle known as the Ba', held each Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The game is described as "the savage rite." A recent edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Scotland advised, "Puritans should steer well clear."
I have no intention of participating, mind you; I'm far too much of a wimp. Also, I am rational: I'm on the short, scrawny side and, well, I value my limbs and internal organs. But I must witness this brawl masquerading as sport.
I didn't know much about the Ba' before I arrived in Kirkwall, aside from assorted anecdotes of mayhem and destruction. But frankly it doesn't seem like there's a lot to know.
Ba' is a shortening of the word "ball," and the word is both the game and the object: a specially-made leather sphere stuffed with cork. It's about the size of a soccer ball, but about three pounds heavier. The rules: Doonies vs. Uppies, first point wins. Uppies win by touching the Ba' to a wall in the south part of town; Doonies by getting it into the main part of the harbor.
The entire town is the playing field, and the Ba' has been everywhere: into gardens, through the choppy waters of the North Sea, over rooftops and inside various buildings. Play has spilled indoors only a few times, but this is less a result of decorum on the part of the pack than of protective measures taken by shopkeepers and homeowners. Throughout town, citizens place sturdy wooden beams about eight inches high just below shoulder level in front of windows, doors, gas pumps, ATMs and anything else likely to yield under the force of 200 men, each of linebacker size and Machiavellian mindset.
It all starts in the middle of town, at the Mercat Cross, in front of St. Magnus Cathedral, a towering reminder of the town's Norse roots. The church is the central landmark in Kirkwall, a regal, 900-year-old edifice of crimson stone, deconsecrated as a Catholic place of worship after the Protestant reformation, and now serving duty for the Church of Scotland.
Just before 1 o'clock on Christmas Day, a crowd of hundreds has gathered. It's a chilly day, and an overnight snowfall, a rarity here, has put the town in a festive mood.
On the periphery of the crowd are families, small kids in strollers, older kids frolicking in the snow. Closer in are the spirited Ba' fans, the ones who will soon be screaming at the scrum and offering support in the form of obscene exhortations, water bottles, flasks filled with the island's most famous export, Highland Park single malt scotch, and other drinks a wee bit stronger than Gatorade.
The teams make a grand entrance, one shortly after the other, each a mass of about a hundred intense-looking men outfitted in mismatched rugby shirts and steel-toed work boots. Uppies and Doonies form one dense, throbbing scrum, as wide as the street. The crowd begins to cheer. I spot Evan in the center of the pack and, recalling his command, give a few yells for the Uppies.
A former Ba' player, hunched with age but still sure-footed, even in the snow, steps up to a raised portion on the green, holding the priceless orb and beaming.
The cathedral bell strikes 1; the Ba' goes up; the scrum surges; the crowd roars.
* * *
On the Sunday between the two games, I go to church with my parents and my sister, who is also visiting for the holidays. We're welcomed warmly, and I begin to feel at ease in this place, like home, like family. Midway through the service, the minister says, offhandedly, "I wonder when we'll get a Doonie Ba'. `Tis a bit of a concern, isn't it?"
`Tis. The Uppies won on Christmas, pushing their way uphill through the snow to victory before darkness fell (with nary a crushed car or split skull), and lengthening their winning streak to over six years. The general sense in town, Uppie partisans aside, is that it's past time for a Doonie win.
Still, it's hard for anyone to be too bothered by six years of results in a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.
Legend has it the Ba' started with an impromptu game played with the severed head of a tyrannical ruler named Tusker: presented with this irrefutable evidence that their oppressor had been slain, the people of Kirkwall partook of a cathartic bit of kick-the-cranium.
The more plausible origin is a form of mass street soccer dating back over 500 years and pitting against each other the men from the competing rulers of the island, the Bishop and the Earl. Cross and crown were frequently at odds, sometimes violently, and their domains roughly correspond with the current territories of Doonies and Uppies, respectively. Games also served as a fertility ritual: a Doonie win led to good fishing, an Uppie victory to a bountiful harvest.
These days, a more appropriate superstition would relate to the island's modern economic lifeblood, oil and tourism. My parents, sister and I bundle up each day to visit the Neolithic sites scattered around the island; collectively, they're one of the world's 700 UNESCO World Heritage sites. In Stonehenge-like rings, and as solitary sentries in pastures, upright flagstone slabs dot the landscape like Brobdingnagian dominoes. These whet the appetite for the more impressive sites, including Maes Howe, a burial mound dating back some 4,700 years but equally notable for its slightly more recent history, in the form of runes carved by the Vikings who came here 800 years ago.
Some are what you'd expect: epic tales of voyages and treasure and plundering. But others, which our tour guide reads in a droll tone, reveal the timelessness of immaturity and narcissism, with boasts of sexual prowess and runic tagging skills. My favorite is an inscription well above the rest: "These runes are written very high."
* * *
Back in town, I call on various Ba' aficionados and make frequent trips to Evan's restaurant for fish and chips and conversation. He tells me about the time he tried to bury the Ba' on the beach at low tide, desperate to prevent it from touching water, and about the time a couple of years ago when he broke his ribs during the Christmas Ba' and was back in the scrum a week later ... briefly.
His tired eyes gleam as he reels off the exploits like tales of some ancient folk hero, but they practically light up when he tells me about the year he won his Ba'.
Immediately after each game, the victorious side selects an individual winner, an undemocratic process recognizing lifetime achievement and often involving a skirmish and harsh words, along with various cheers and taunts from the still-assembled crowd. In the end, one man emerges and is carried off on the shoulders of his mates.
"Next to the birth of my children, there's nothing else that could compare with it," Graeme King, a Doonie winner, tells me. "It's absolutely unbelievable. If you could bottle that emotion, you could be a multi-millionaire."
I venture to the outskirts of Kirkwall to meet Graeme, both hoping and fearing that he will be the very embodiment of the fearsome Viking warrior who riots for fun. I've seen photos of him online, from the year he won, and they show him towering over other Ba' players, looking very much like a giant and, though he is smiling, not necessarily the gentle kind. Frankly, I'm terrified.
As it turns out, he is one of the most affable, generous people I've met, eager to tell me every last detail of the game. Like Evan, Graeme has animated tales of twisted limbs and trickery, at one point pantomiming hiding the Ba' under his shirt: "Hang on here, he didn't have a hump in his back five minutes ago!"
Graeme's enthusiasm for the game is infectious, but it's tempered by a point he keeps circling back to between anecdotes.
"This is not one of the `100 Most Dangerous Things To Do Before You Die,' " he says. "We're not interested in having a hundred folks coming off the ferry and wanting to play the game -- that would finish it."
There's been a fair amount of media coverage of the Ba' over the years, probably because it seems like such an easy story to write, especially if you're a wannabe gonzo journalist of decent build and in possession of some heavy work boots: You wade into the mob, take a few elbows to the nose, make a quip or two about a Braveheart-meets-Hagar the Horrible bacchanalia, throw in some bagpipes and kilts, and there's your travel story.
It's late and dark by the time I've finished chatting with Graeme, and he insists on giving me a ride back to my parents' flat -- in part, he concedes, so that he can visit Doonie territory. Geographically, he's an Uppie now, but he was born a Doonie, perhaps the last true Doonie winner, since nearly all babies are now born in the hospital, in Uppie territory.
This is where I first get an inkling of the rule that Evan is so intent to clarify: loyalty is no longer determined by where you live but by family ties. Your affiliation is based on your father's, which was based on his father's, and so on. Players move to other parts of town, elsewhere on the island, out of the country. But if the roots are strong enough, no matter where you live, you will return to the Mercat Cross two days a year, long-held loyalties intact.
* * *
After watching the beginning of the New Year's Day Ba', I duck under a barrier near the scrum and enter the house of my parents' friend Mary, who is hosting her annual Ba' party from the safety of her second-floor living room.
A few locals claim to have no interest in the Ba', and a mop-headed boy of about 4 declares that he is a Doonie, though I know he is not from Kirkwall at all. He doesn't seem to understand what the Ba' is, exactly, only that it is terribly exciting and that when the scrum is positioned just below the windows, he can drop chocolates through the hovering cloud of steam and onto the players' sweat-drenched heads.
I have other goals: from this ideal vantage point, I try to make sense of the strategy, which Graeme tried to explain to me.
There are discrete layers of action: Older players, somewhat slower but youthful in their passions, stand on the outskirts of the mob, offering direction and strategy. Younger players also hang out around the edges, adding their weight to the slow-moving mass but ready to take off running should the Ba' squirt loose. And in the middle of it all, tightly packed and barely able to breathe, are those with the right balance of experience, strategic savvy and lingering brawn, the middle-aged lawyers, bankers, teachers, and fish-and-chips shop owners -- it's the family men here who are the athletic superstars.
The concentric circles I can see; the implementation of strategy, I cannot. Even these athletic behemoths can only gain millimeters at a time. Frankly, it's boring, a rite far more somnolent than savage.
Temporarily giving up on the action, or lack thereof, I schmooze some more, and eat some chocolates before they all disappear. I'm having a lovely time until I realize that the crowds outside have vanished. Bidding my host farewell, I race outdoors and wander up and down the cobblestone lanes, finally finding the game stalled in front of the library, roughly midway between the goals.
Spectators are sitting on walls and hanging onto railings, many looking quite comfortable, as though they expect to remain in their perches all day. Above the scrum, a pedestrian crosswalk light flashes, giving the scene its only sense of movement or action.
Periodically a player extricates himself from the pack, coughing and groaning, and stumbles away for a restorative nip from an onlooker's flask or puff from a cigarette. Several participants pull a gasping comrade from the mass, hand him over to the Red Cross officials who follow the scrum, and immediately return to the entrenched throng.
The crowd remains sizeable and enthusiastic even as darkness falls and temperatures drop. The old men on the edges of the throng continue to scream invective at their opponents and graver insults at their own teammates, their energy and voices never fading. Yet still no movement.
And then, with no apparent warning, the action resumes, and the scrum begins to make quick progress up Junction Road toward the Uppie goal, the entire mass bouncing to and fro across the street, occasionally lurching over walls and into gardens. It's quick progress from here, and soon the Ba' is over.
* * *
As I trudge back to my parents' flat, I try to make sense of what I've just experienced. It's a conversation with a spectator, not the sight of the pulsing scrum or bedraggled players, that sticks in my mind most.
Back by the library, during the long lull, my mother's friend Vivian saw me writing in my notebook and came over to chat. She greeted me with the warm, mildly amused look I'd seen repeatedly in Kirkwall as its inhabitants examined the skinny American who'd come to see their "savage rite."
"I hope all you're writing in there is good."
"Oh, yes," I replied, which was not quite true.
"Everybody's out, and ye tell people ye'll meet them here, but ye can't," she said. The size -- everyone is here -- and unpredictable mobility of the crowd preclude planned rendezvous. Instead, you have to rely on serendipity, and enjoy the chance encounters -- with neighbors, long-lost friends or complete strangers -- as they occur.
Her words make me recall Graeme's comments, and I realize what should have been obvious all along: the Ba' is about blood, but not the type depicted in the tourists' trite, titillating tales. Not in the sense of gore and violence.
Community, roots, identity: clutched in the grasp of a mass of men is one of the final vestiges of the storied Orcadian culture.