The Old Ba' Game
By Eli Saslow
William Thomson's family had played this sport for centuries, so he understood that he needed to choose between two strategies for the annual Christmas day ba' game.
The scrawny 17-year-old could fight for the ball in the center of the riotous scrum, where more than 300 men would function as a human juicer, turning his face red, then purple. He would be scratched, punched, kneed and bitten. His ribs might break. He could pass out unconscious.
Or, Thomson could follow convention for players his size and stay near the edge of the scrum, pushing the pile. This would work well unless the ball popped out and the mob changed direction. Cars, gravestones, houses, strollers, hotel lobbies -- all had been kicked, shoved or trampled in pursuit of the ball during previous games. Anticipating such a stampede, business and homeowners in town had nailed wooden planks across their doors and windows. "If you're on the edge of the scrum and it turns on you," one veteran player said, "then you might as well be dead."
This, Thomson decided, was his safest option.
He never considered not participating. The men in the Thomson family -- like the men in most families here -- have played this game since at least the mid-1600s. It is one of the oldest and most physical sports, and it's almost certainly the most simple. Half of the men in Kirkwall, called Doonies, try to push a small ball into the sea using any means necessary. The other half, called Uppies, work to push the ball to a wall one mile across town. The ba', which refers to both the game and the ball with which it is played, can last anywhere from four minutes to nine hours in freezing temperatures and hurricane-force winds.
The ba' is played nowhere else. It has persisted in Kirkwall because its basic tenets are congruent with life on these Orkney Islands in northern Scotland. If you're tough enough to survive in this old Viking territory, in a frostbitten town of around 6,000 bordered by whitecapped seas, then you don't worry about relaxing on Christmas and New Year's Day. You put on steel-toe boots and a rugby shirt and walk downtown to the almost 900-year-old St. Magnus Cathedral, ready for hell.
The Uppies and Doonies squeezed into a tight pack last Tuesday afternoon in front of the cathedral, where they waited for a former player, standing in front of a cross, to throw the ba' into the middle of the scrum. Thomson, a Doonie, stood on the edge as planned. He had wrapped duct tape around the bottom of his frayed jeans to ensure that nobody could rip them off. He had hastily patched two holes in the back of his rugby shirt, mending relics from one of last year's games.
The ba' flew over Thomson's head and disappeared into the chaos behind him. A few Uppies circled behind Thomson for a better angle to push the scrum into a side alley. Doonies circled behind those Uppies and tried to pull them away. Before Thomson realized what had happened, he was in the center of the pack, his arms trapped at his side.
For almost 30 minutes, the scrum deadlocked in the 15-foot-wide alley. Two hundred Uppies grunted and pushed in one direction; 115 Doonies held their ground. Thick steam rose from the pack, and Thomson couldn't find fresh air. He called out for space, but the screaming mob drowned his request. His eyes rolled backward and his head fell on his shoulder. A nearby Doonie slapped him across the cheek and poured water on his face, desperate to wake him. Thirty seconds passed before two spectators climbed down from the alley wall and stepped on the heads and shoulders of ba' players to reach Thomson. They pulled his limp body from the pile and carried him 100 yards away.
Once he awoke, Thomson asked his girlfriend what had happened. His ribs ached, but he felt otherwise okay. A few friends stopped by to check on him, and one offered a flask of whiskey.
"Thanks," Thomson said. "I need this to get my nerves back."
He took a swig and handed back the flask. Then he lifted himself up over a wall and dropped back into the riot.
Three days before the Christmas ba', Ian Smith diagrammed game strategies while sitting next to a coal fire in his house overlooking the town. At 60, Smith is one of the oldest men still participating in the ba'. He has played for 45 years, never missing the twice-annual game despite heart surgery, a hip replacement, nine broken ribs and two knee surgeries. A butcher and a lifelong Orcadian -- he refuses to call himself Scottish -- Smith identifies first and foremost as a Doonie.
When the ba' game was first played in Kirkwall, teams were divided by whether a player was born closer to the ocean (a Doonie) or the wall (an Uppie). A hospital opened in Kirkwall about 50 years ago and became the location for all births, so now family history determines the teams. Newcomers to the island usually move into recent housing developments near the wall and declare themselves Uppies, which has created an imbalance. With almost twice as many men, the Uppies have won 15 of the last 16 ba's.
Smith promised friends he would hold off on retirement until after the next Doonie win, a vow that further stretches the conventions of good sense with each passing year. Arthritis has begun to seize his already weathered hands, making it impossible for him to clench them into fists. Because Smith believes his body has started to shrink, he grumbles when asked his height. "I'm five-feet-and-who-gives-a-damn," he said. "Mind your own bloody business."
For this year's Christmas ba' (after a week of recuperation, the game also is played on New Year's Day), Smith had solicited help from his two sons in hopes of finally pushing the ba' into the ocean. Kevin, 27, had traveled from Edinburgh to play in the game, his first trip home in a year. Sean, 25, had agreed to participate in the ba' for the first time since he lost consciousness in the middle of a 2003 scrum. The brothers had decided to play mainly because they wanted to cash in on their father's retirement promise before a ba' left him seriously disabled.
"What they don't know is that even if the ba' goes down, I'll probably keep playing," Smith said. "What's life in the Orkneys without a ba'?"
Librarians have traced the Kirkwall ba' back to the 1650s, but several local legends place its origins even earlier. Many Uppies believe the ba' is the descendant of a game played by Vikings here in the ninth century. Smith and most Orcadians swear the ba' began in the 1400s, when a Kirkwall leader beheaded a neighboring tyrant and residents kicked and shoved his skull across town.
Ba' players have preserved the game by steadfastly refusing to modernize it. There is no set of written rules, no official organization, no record-keeping of any kind. Even the four-pound, black-and-brown-striped ba's still are made specifically for each game by a rotation of local craftsmen. To survive the scrum, a ba' must withstand the equivalent pressure of a two-ton weight. The craftsmen stuff Portuguese cork into London leather and spend three days stitching the ba' together with 50 yards of eight-cord flax.
Neither Uppies nor Doonies wear uniforms or distinguishing marks of any kind. Players are supposed to recognize their teammates because their fathers played together, and their grandfathers before that. If anyone should get confused about who's who in the midst of the 300-person tangle of arms, legs and faces, he's wise to keep it to himself. Leaders on both teams said confusing an Uppie with a Doonie often warrants banishment from the next ba' game.
Since local newspapers began writing about the ba' in the late 1800s, the historical record indicates the game has existed predominantly in isolation and in peace. A 10-person crew of voluntary paramedics and an unwritten code of sportsmanship have limited ba'-related fatalities to one, in 1903. There always has been a boys' ba' for children 15 and younger at 10:30 a.m. on Christmas and New Year's Day, followed by a men's ba' at 1 p.m. An experimental attempt to start a women's ba' in the 1940s lasted only two years because of meager participation.
Once every decade or so, an uppity mainlander from Scotland moves across the eight-mile Pentland Firth and throws a fit about liability, brutality and pointlessness. But the Uppies and Doonies ignore the protests and show up at St. Magnus Cathedral to continue playing, because that in itself is the point.
Smith obsesses over each game for three months in advance, and he continued to contemplate strategy at his house until almost 10 p.m. His two sons returned home from the pub and sat down on a couch opposite their father. Sean, the family baby who weighs only 135 pounds, rubbed his forehead against his palm. He'd been wanting to confess something, he said, and the night's quaff had fortified his confidence.
"You know, da'," he said, "still not quite sure I'm playing this year."
"Hell you're not!" Kevin said, punching his brother in the shoulder. "What, you scared? Come on!"
"Naw, I'm too small," Sean said. "I could get killed in there."
"Ahh, it's not about size, never has been," Smith said. "If I taught you boys one thing about the ba', it's that nothing matters but heart and effort. Don't make a damn difference if you're seven foot tall or four foot. You're a Smith, so you'll play. And you'll play Doonie."
The sun -- or something vaguely like it -- filtered through a thick sea fog and rose over Kirkwall at 9 on Christmas morning, illuminating the epicenter of this 70-island archipelago that sits closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. It would set again in less than seven hours, leaving the town's residents in the eerie darkness that accompanies their extreme geographic isolation.
The day's ba' forecast called for temperatures in the high 30s and "a bit of a breeze," a term Orcadians use for all gusts under 100 mph. A "bit of a breeze" translates: Yes, you might have to tack sideways to make progress while walking up the sidewalk. Yes, the halogen streetlights probably would shake and rattle in their foundations. Yes, the whistling gales might lift mist off the sea and spray it across the islands, bathing the Orkneys in salty foam.
Kirkwall, though, had been built in the likeness of a fortress, capable of withstanding a bit of a breeze and more. The brown and gray walls of its single-story buildings were constructed with stone and covered with roofs of poured concrete. Streets curve radically like corkscrews to block the wind. On the day of the ba', wooden planks three inches thick cover each door and window, a precaution mandated by the town council before every ba'. The adornments made Kirkwall look particularly sinister, less like a town than a collection of war bunkers hunched against the sea.
An hour before the beginning of the ba', the streets remained still and silent, as they had since the end of October. Most residents here are fishermen and livestock farmers whose work goes dark during the winter. From early December until the end of February, these islands enter into a hibernation. Residents stay at home or, if they're feeling brave, trudge to one of the well-lit local pubs to escape the darkness.
The harsh winters prevent trees and most other plants from growing on the islands, but Kirkwall continues to lure newcomers by offering a rare portal into history. The town has shunned chain restaurants, stoplights and stop signs. Crime is rare, and the unemployment rate is lower than 1 percent. Many of the islands' greatest relics -- 5,000-year-old burial grounds, Viking graffiti marks -- remain unlocked and unguarded. A half-dozen sunken battleships from World War I and World War II fill the harbor, casting shadows across the water when the tide ebbs.
Past and present smudge together in Kirkwall, and never more so than on this Christmas day. As the giant clock on St. Magnus Cathedral neared 1 p.m., hundreds of spectators gathered along the cobblestone main street. Two hundred Uppies strutted down the street from the north; 115 Doonies approached from the south. They met in front of the church and glared at each other like opposing street gangs. Then the church bell chimed to signal 1 p.m., and the ba' descended into the pack.
The ba' traveled less than 100 yards in the game's first hour, with Uppies and Doonies pushing in opposite directions to create a near standstill. The only significant movement came once every five minutes or so, when spectators climbed over the pile and pulled unconscious players -- first William Thomson, then a half-dozen others -- out to safety. Participants stopped moving altogether for 30 seconds early in the game to allow paramedics to strap one man onto a stretcher.
Players always have expected to return home with bite marks, gashes, bruised hands and black eyes, but the rate of serious injuries has doubled in recent games. Kirkwall's population has grown by more than 1,000 in the last decade, and the size of the ba' scrum -- and the pressure at its center -- has correspondingly metastasized. New players unfamiliar with the game's tradition of picking up fallen athletes are now just as likely to trample them, veterans said.
"Some of these young boys take 'by any means necessary' a bit too far," Smith said. "Used to be we'd beat each other for a while but never throw that final punch. Now, they'd kill you if they had to. We've got too many players and too many people crowding around to watch. It's almost too big."
Instead of trying to push the expanded scrum toward a goal with sheer force, Uppie and Doonie leaders now rely on strategy and trickery to move the ba'. As the deadlock continued on Christmas, Smith climbed a wall for an aerial view of the action. He spotted the ba' in the center of the scrum, held by two Doonies. With a succession of winks and hand movements, Smith instructed the Doonies to surreptitiously hand the ba' backward, from one teammate to the next, in the opposite direction of their goal. When the ba' finally reached the last Doonie, the player sprinted off. He made it four blocks toward the water before a dozen Uppies caught him.
Spectators -- and most players -- almost never know who holds the ba', and that mystery increases the frenzy. It's not unusual for a lesser player to participate in five or six ba's without ever seeing the namesake of the game, much less touching it. The ba' spends considerable time hidden under players' shirts, and participants rarely throw or kick it. Rather, the team in possession typically hands the ba' around discreetly, like a stolen jewel.
As the sun faded on Christmas, three Uppies left the scrum and climbed onto the slanted roof of an Indian restaurant. Two of them grabbed the third Uppie's ankles and dangled him from the roof, so that he was suspended upside down over the scrum. A teammate on the ground handed up the ba', and the Uppie pulled himself back onto the roof.
"Ba's up there, boys," Smith yelled, pointing frantically at the roof. "Come on! Get him."
A pack of Doonies hurriedly climbed above the Indian restaurant, where one player's foot broke through the shingled roof. He pulled himself back onto solid ground, caught up to the ba' holder and tackled him. Two Doonies kicked the ba' loose and threw it back into the scrum, but an Uppie caught the ba' and eventually sprinted away amid the chaos. He made it within a few blocks of the Uppie goal before the rest of the pack caught up.
Fifteen minutes later, at about 5 p.m., 200 Uppies shoved the remainder of the way to their goal and pressed the ba' against the wall for victory. As dictated by tradition, a handful of experienced Uppies stood at the wall and continued to fight over the ba', a process that determines the game's individual winner. Ian Gorn, 36, eventually emerged with the ba', and teammates hoisted him onto their shoulders. They carried him in the direction of a local pub, where Gorn gulped down a beer. Then he walked to his downtown apartment, where, as the ba's individual winner, it was his responsibility to host an immediate, all-night party for all 300 sweat-soaked ba' participants.
Gorn hugged his wife as he walked in his front door and grabbed another beer from the hundreds stacked on his dining room table, donated to the winner by a local grocery store. He set the ba' down for display on a counter in his living room. His two sons, ages 7 and 12, reached up to grab it. Then they fell onto the floor in a tussle for possession.
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