Take me out to the ball game

For the islanders of Orkney, an ancient form of football arouses tribal passions. With no rules and hundreds on each side, Andrew Spooner discovered what happens when push comes to shove
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The Independent Travel

'Welcome to Orkney," says my local contact, Colin Keldie, as I walk into the arrival lounge at Kirkwall, the island's capital. With soothing views all round, the drive through the wide-open spaces of Mainland - Orkney's biggest island - begins to lower my city-induced stress levels.

"I thought we'd take in the Ring of Brodgar stone circle on the way into town," says Keldie. In the distance, set on a finger of pastureland, I can just make out a tight grouping of large, upright stones. The Ring of Brodgar is not exactly Stonehenge, but as I walk among the stones, with the sea and fields providing striking views, the final city cobwebs are blown away.

The verdant landscape and historic stone circles are a big draw for visitors to the islands of Orkney. Add in a stunning array of local produce - my favourite is the peat-smoked sea trout - and friendly locals, and it is understandable why tourist numbers are increasing.

But it is not the pleasures of island life that have drawn me to Kirkwall. What I am here for is a good, strong dose of wild, raucous behaviour. And no, it doesn't involve any alcohol. The reason I am visiting Kirkwall is to witness an ancient street-football game called the Ba'.

My first port of call is the home of the 1977 New Year's Ba' winner and member of the Ba' organ-ising committee, Bobby Leslie. "The records stretch back about 150 years," says Leslie, 65, as we discuss the event's origins. "It was probably played in some form long before that, but nobody can be really certain."

What is known is that the form of street football that makes up the Kirkwall Ba' has probably been played in Britain for hundreds of years, consisting of a largely unstructured pushing and shoving match in which the hands are actually used more than the feet to convey the ball to a specific destination. Similar games are still played in 10 or so UK towns, and all involve various sections of the community, often hundreds strong, competing against one another in roads, alleys and lanes.

Before arriving in Orkney I had contacted the National Football Museum to learn about the historical roots of such games. "These type of games were pretty widespread several hundred years ago," said Mark Bushell, the National Football Museum's press officer. "But they were considered wild, lawless events and were often banned. Legend has it that they began with the kicking around of vanquished raiders' heads."

Back at Leslie's house, he tells me about the specifics of the Kirkwall Ba'. Thankfully, no severed heads are involved. "The Ba' itself is a handmade leather ball filled with cork. It's thrown into the scrum [of competitors] from the Mercat Cross on Broad Street every Christmas Day and New Year's Day when the cathedral clock strikes 1pm."

What are the rules? "There are no rules as such," Leslie explains, "but the Doonies have to get the ball into the salt water of Kirkwall Bay, while the Uppies have to touch the Ba' on to the wall at Sandison's Corner, where Main Street meets New Scapa Road. The Ba' winner is then picked [by popular acclaim] from the successful side."

Which side you played for was originally decided by the geo-graphy of birth: it depended on whether you were born "Up the Gates" or "Doon the Gates" (gata is Old Norse for path or road). These days, with most births in hospital, family loyalties tend to be the deciding factor. Non-locals are welcome to join in, and which side "ferryloupers" (incomers) play for is determined either by the route they took when first arriving in Kirkwall, or by which side their friends play on.

With up to 500 burly men competing in a giant moving scrum and with vociferous spectator participation, I wonder if the Ba' is ever violent. "It's certainly rough and physically challenging," says Leslie with a grin. "The odd punch is thrown, but that kind of behaviour never really gets out of hand."

I then ask Leslie the really important question - which side is he on? "I'm a Doonie," he says. But haven't the Doonies lost the last 15 Ba's? "Och, well, yes they have," says Leslie, looking downcast. "The Uppies are really big and strong at the moment, and we'll need a strong dose of luck to win this year."

On the morning of the New Year's Ba' (held on 2 January this year, as New Year's Day was a Sunday), I walk the twisting streets and back alleys of Kirkwall. Nearly every shop and house has boarded its windows with thick, heavy planks. The town feels under siege, and I wonder how "rough and physically challenging" things are actually going to get.

With 1pm approaching, a huge crowd begins to gather by the Mercat Cross. From the Doonies end of town a large group of men arrive en masse. With heavily strapped, steel-toecapped boots, hard stares and rolled-up sleeves, they look ready for action.

Minutes later the Uppies arrive - they are discernibly bigger - and the two sides come together in a heaving scrum. They push, shove and shout and then, just as the cathedral bells peel for 1pm, the Ba' is thrown and hostilities begin in earnest.

The Ba' quickly disappears among the heaving mass, which then morphs into a single, writhing entity. The entire body of men crashes up against a wall outside the cathedral, the pack pinned in place by its sheer weight. A few players climb on to the wall, shouting instructions to their respective sides. Suddenly, one of the men is dragged backwards by the neck. Fists begin to fly, and the game develops an edge.

I bump into one of Leslie's sons, Drew, an active Doonie. "A lot of the younger Doonies are really sick of losing," says Drew, 32. "There's a bit more needle than usual." With those words the scrum suddenly surges into an alley opposite the cathedral - a good move for the Doonies, as it provides a short cut to the sea.

Forty minutes later and the huge scrum is still crammed into the narrow alleyway, the Ba' at its centre. I clamber on top of a wall to get a better view and am stunned by how tightly formed the pack is. Thick, heavy steam begins to spiral out of the scrum into the cold January afternoon. Grown men turn puce, pass out and Red Cross medics rush to their aid. Punches continue to be thrown sporadically, and all the while the watching crowd presses in, egging the players on.

After what seems an age, the pack wheels down the alley to Junction Road, and after an hour or so of shoving, which includes an exciting break with the Ba' across the rooftops, the Uppies slowly begin to get the better of the Doonies territorially.

With Sandison's Corner now in sight, I venture on to a low roof to get a better view of the final moments of another Uppie victory. Suddenly there is a wild commotion on the side of the scrum. A huge, bald man - a Doonie known as Graham "Konga" King - has the Ba' in his hands and is legging it down an alley just below me.

He reaches the end of the alley and hauls the Ba' over the wall, where another Doonie is waiting to pick it up. Then the Ba' is gone.

I realise that from the end of the alley the Doonies will have a clear route to the sea. I climb down and run with the other spectators towards Kirkwall Bay. The mobile phone of a woman running next to me starts to ring. "It's in the sea! It's in the sea!" she shouts excitedly. A cheer goes up, and by the time the crowd arrives a small group of triumphant Doonies are swimming with the Ba'. Tradition has it that a Doonies victory will bring good fishing, while an Uppies success presages an excellent harvest.

The individual winner is judged to be Alex "Badger" Findlater. Doonies run up and hug him, carrying him triumphantly on their shoulders. A number of Doonies - spectators and players - are in tears. The Uppies look inconsolable. I bump into Bobby Leslie. "That was amazing," he says excitedly. "I told you we'd need a slice of luck, and by heck we got it."

Andrew Spooner travelled to Scotland on the First Scotrail Caledonian Sleeper. Bargain berths from £19, standard return fares £99, first class £149; book online at firstscotrail.com or by phone: 08457 550 033. For more details of the Kirkwall Ba': bagame.com. For information on Orkney and Scotland in general: 01856 872 856, visitorkney.com; 0845 225 5121, visitscotland.com.

The ins and outs of playing up and down in Britain

Ashbourne (28 Feb-1 March)

The football game played in the streets of this Derbyshire town each Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday can trace its roots to the 12 century, making it one of the oldest ball games in the UK. The contest between the Up'ards and Down'ards is open to everyone brave enough to have a go. Details: 01335 343 666, ashbourne-town.com.

Jedburgh (2 March)

The Hand Ba' game in this Scottish Borders town is rumoured to have originally been played with the heads of English raiders - they now use a less messy leather ball tied with ribbons. A series of 10 to 15 games, open to all, is played over the course of a day. The Uppies score by throwing the ball over Jedburgh Castle wall, the Downies by getting the ball into Skiprunning Burn. Details: 0870 608 0404, jedburgh-online.org.uk.

Workington (14, 18, 22 April)

Known as the Uppies and Downies, this game is played three times over the Easter period. One of the roughest of the bunch - there was a death in 1983 - its roots stretch back hundreds of years. To win, you have to "hail" the ball by lifting it above your head three times at either the Workington Hall gates (if you're an Uppie), or at the Quayside (Downie). Details: 01900 606 699, workingtontic @allerdale.gov.uk.

For details of other traditional football games and venues: nationalfootballmuseum.com.