Malones bars are something of an institution, known throughout Scotland and further afield for their party atmosphere and traditional Irish craic. The Irish love of partying goes down very well in Scotland; we are cousins in that regard.
Old into new
Malones previous location in Edinburgh shut down some time ago and the owners had been waiting for the right venue to become available in order to relaunch in the Scottish capital. In the meantime they kept a local foothold with a number of pop-up venues, but late in 2017 they bought Edinburgh institution Diane’s Pool Hall near Haymarket station. After decades of running the legendary pool hall Diane decided to retire, leaving the much loved two-storey corner space open to new opportunities. On a personal note, I’ve been playing pool in Diane’s for more than twenty years and really loved the place, and so I was sorry to see it go. But I was delighted to receive the call from Malones and to help make this new incarnation a really special place was the best thing I could do.
Craic and Ceol
The venue is ideally placed to take advantage of the ongoing revamp of the Haymarket area and the plan was to create an authentic Irish bar atmosphere, with a smaller bar downstairs and a larger music venue and gastropub upstairs.
Malones needed me to contribute to a number of zones in the bar, providing feature artwork that would create atmosphere and excitement. The two initial critical areas mentioned were the brick wall behind the new main stage and the staircase leading up from the bottom bar.
I arrived on site in early January 2018 and though it was still a building site in full flow, I knew it was important to get a foot in the door and get on with it; from experience if you want to hit a deadline you panic early enough. However, in order to make the job possible I had to work a night shift throughout the month as I was working in the staircase – the main thoroughfare for the site. To avoid getting in the way of the dozens of joiners, plumbers and electricians who constantly needed access up and down the stairs, I frequently turned up at around 6pm and worked till 5am.
Down With This Sort Of Thing
The staircase needed to be Irish-themed but Malones were keen to avoid worn-out stereotypes like leprechauns and shamrocks. We decided to produce a large scale ‘Father Ted’ mural; a television series that I love and that is universally popular throughout the UK. I knew that if I painted it right, customers to the pub would all come in with a big smile on their face. The most intimidating part for me was the initial drawing on paper. I sketched it over Christmas and then cleaned and primed the walls before starting painting the mural.
The builders were more than a little surprised at how fast it started coming together. We covered lots of the most famous scenes from the show.
• Dougal learns about ‘this is small / these are far away’.
• The Eurovision Song Contest entry ‘My lovely horse’
• Kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse
• The priests getting trapped in the lingerie department
I also included large scale portraits of fan favourites Mrs Doyle and Father Jack; all this and plenty of smaller details that would keep the most committed of fans happy.
For the main room upstairs I produced the new stage artwork in one long 15 hour shift. After first creating the design on paper, I then hand painted it on the bare brick wall using a digital projector for speed and convenience. The final result has a warm, inviting and authentic feeling; it feels like it has always been there and on opening night it went down very well.
Following the success of the stairwell mural and the stage design I was also asked to provide further artwork for some other areas.
Downstairs the builders had uncovered some original bifold doors that had been sealed away for decades. Eventually the plan is to reinstate the windows, but as planning permission may take some months Malones needed something authentic and Irish to fill the glazing spaces. With Guinness’s permission I recreated one of their classic advertising posters for the space. Guinness were quite firm that they wanted an exact copy, but as these are classic illustrations it was an honour to oblige. The greatest compliment was that a number of customers thought the paintings were original and had just been found behind the wall.
In addition to this Malones Marketing Manger Aoibhinn Cullen asked me to paint a feature picture for the ladies’ toilets, illustrating the classic Guinness caption ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. It has been put in the lobby of the girls’ toilets and it does a good job to dilute the Father Jack painting lurking at the door.
All this artwork was produced over the course of around a fortnight in the midst of a building site, with dust, rubble, and workmen littered around the place. However as opening night approached, the full extent of Malones plans became apparent. In addition to commissioning my pictures they had been very busy sourcing vintage items in auctions and antique shops throughout Ireland. Towards the end of the job they brought huge amounts of antique prints, signs, mirrors and objects, that when placed throughout the venue made a huge difference to the space. When opening night came, the transformation from dusty building site to stunning party venue was instant and shockingly effective.
The project has been garnering a lot of press both here in Scotland and across in Ireland – according to various comments on social media, Malones Edinburgh is already on the fans’ drinking map for the next Six Nations Championship!
Newsletter: “Bar unveils giant mural tribute to Father Ted” Belfast Telegraph: “Paint the town Ted – bar’s tribute to Father Ted with huge mural” Buzz.ie: “A pub in Edinburgh has just revealed a 28-meter-long Father Ted mural”
Irish Central: “Edinburgh pub unveils massive mural in honor of “Father Ted”” Irish Post: “Paint the town Ted – New Irish pub opens with amazing 28-metre mural tribute to Father Ted” Edinburgh Evening News: In pictures: Edinburgh bar unveils giant mural tribute to Father Ted
Malones have been a joy to work with; their collective will to achieve quality and open the venue on time was really impressive and all done with Irish goodwill and spirit. The next step is to extend the Father Ted mural to the bottom of the stairs and there are plans for more branding and pictures throughout the bar. I can’t wait to see how the bar develops. With the gang’s attitude and drive, I know it’s going to be a big success.
I have been a friend of Carole Racionzer for some time now and several years ago she also bought my 2012 portrait of my cousin Anna Rendall playing the cello.
I was delighted to learn that she was getting married to Stan in 2017, and when she asked if I could paint a picture as her main wedding present I was happy to help. The idea was that instead of her guests buying wine glasses or kitchen paraphernalia as presents, as a unique and personal alternative they could all chip in for a custom painting. I have long thought that many wedding photographs end up being quite formal, posed and lacking in soul. A party painting like the ones I am known for could provide a lasting memento of the day and it would also reflect the life and joy of their wedding celebration.
I decided to paint portraits of all the wedding guests as well as the main wedding party. Carole and Stan hosted their ceremony at Archerfield House in East Lothian, with a handfasting ceremony led by a Humanist minister and their guests arranged around them. It was decided that I would make a picture of that scene and build it on a circular canvas that reflected the shape of the ceremony. I gathered reference photos of the happy couple during the ceremony and then took pictures of as many wedding guests as I could get to pose at the time. I then went down to the reception venue and started the painting in full view of the guests. Throughout the day this painting process provided unique on-site entertainment for the wedding guests; I painted the main wedding party first, starting with the bride and groom before painting Carole’s daughters, the best man, the matron of honour, and the parents of the happy couple. People of all ages are fascinated by the process and the openness of how I do it, and wedding guests were constantly hovering around the easel, watching my progress.
To add to the ambience of my workspace, I brought four large boards of crowd scenes from my 2013 Hogmanay painting. This gave the guests an idea of the direction in which the wedding painting was going.
After the event the picture was taken back to the studio in Leith and the longer process of painting all the guests in began.
Once finished it was popped in a custom-made frame to be presented to Carole and Stan and hung in their Perth home. Job done!
Echline Primary School – Queensferry Crossing Mural
South Queensferry, a town ten miles west of Edinburgh and already world famous for its Forth Road and Forth Rail Bridges, entered a new phase in its history in 2017 when a third bridge was built on the Firth of Forth.
Local school Echline Primary already had an interior bridge mural which had been on site for more than twenty years. It was very well executed, much loved and had stood the test of time, but it was now a bridge short and it was deemed time for a new version. The old mural was careful taken down and hopefully it will be preserved in some form for the school’s archives.
The school wanted a crowd mural as they were really inspired by some of my past work, but with the added feature of having the kids helping to build it.
South Queensferry has a famous annual town ‘Ferry Fair’ so I decided to base the mural on that for crowd vibrancy, and have the three bridges in the background. I produced a drawing that would steer the whole project, which was approved by the school ahead of the project launch.
On the Friday before the mural started, I presented at a school assembly where I introduced myself and my work, and showed the children some of my videos.
During the week of the project I worked with all the children from primary one through primary seven. The idea was that some of the children would paint themselves into the painting while others worked on the buildings and background. The mural evolved throughout the week and I painted alongside the children to help continually steer the picture towards its vision. It was all done and dusted in a week. I heard reports from the teachers that the kids were delighted to work with “Mr Hat”. Many of them learnt top hat spinning as a byproduct of my residency.
The mural was also featured in an article in the Edinburgh Evening News as part of the school’s celebration of the new bridge.
Last year I spent time painting various spots in The Three Sisters, a famous pub on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. The venue was named after the three Mackinnon sisters Cath, Kitty, and Maggie, famous in the 1740s for gracing Edinburgh stages with their singing, dancing and beauty. It is a large complex of bars, and inside this network of rooms is housed Edinburgh’s Student Union Bar.
The Three Sisters asked me back this year to further improve the Student Union. This time I took on a tired and bedraggled looking corridor which before I arrived, wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1970s office block. They wanted some new artwork that was very Edinburgh-themed, would energise the space, and had some relevance to the diverse university students who frequent the space.
The main wall in the corridor now has an impressionist vista of Edinburgh with the castle illuminated by the world famous bi-annual fireworks display.
I took the artwork onto the ceiling as well as the walls in order to give the area an immersive feel. As the scene moved further away from the firework end of the corridor, the idea was to give it a ‘starry night’ / Van Gogh inspired look. The ThreeSisters also had me paint the walls at the far end with notable university buildings from around the city.
On a completely different theme, The Three Sisters asked me to reflect the Cowgate location of the bar in another mural. The venue is surrounded by a maze of vaulted arches that hold the buildings of the area up, and so I painted a map to the vaults under George IV Bridge with a pop art/brightly coloured feel.
The whole job was done to deadline in under a week, just after the Edinburgh Festival finished but before the onslaught of students for Freshers Week.
Fingers crossed it will keep the students happy and ultimately lead to increased footfall through the door – always the mark of a successful project for me!
Continuing collaboration with Kyloe restaurant; painting their life-sized fibreglass cows.
Over the years I’ve painted a succession of cows with various themes for Kyloe. We switch over the cows on a regular basis so that they are seasonally relevant and stay fresh for passersby.
The restaurant has watched the foot traffic outside via their CCTV and estimate that the cow has its photo taken once every two minutes. It functions as a huge social media envoy and doorman for the restaurant, acting as a hook to let people know that the restaurant is there. This is important as the restaurant is a first floor establishment and is only accessible through the Huxley, its sister pub at ground level.
The cows are branded with the restaurant’s logo to help increase the restaurant’s profile on social media and on the street. Kyloe is an award-winning steak restaurant so the cow is bang on theme for the beef aficionado. I take my responsibility in painting this very seriously. The cow’s location is the first thing you see when you step onto Princes Street from the West End, and I think the quality of the paint job that I do should reflect the calibre of Kyloe, the top steak restaurant in Edinburgh.
Kyloe restaurant and The Huxley bar are on the route to Murrayfield Stadium and both have a strong history as a rugby supporting venues; the last cow that I painted was a personal favourite and was ‘Tartan Army’ themed.
The latest cow celebrates the restaurant’s new sponsorship of Edinburgh Rugby Club. Decked out in the Edinburgh Rugby colours and an Edinburgh Rugby coloured tartan kilt and skull cap, I’ve made it look like a bit of a roughneck.
Kyloe is also taking on organising the catering in the hospitality tent at Edinburgh Rugby’s home ground Myreside, so in this brief I had to keep both clients happy.
The final paint job has gone down very well with the staff and customers, and players from the team have been by a number of times to pose with their biggest supporter.
I’ve known the owners of Edinburgh restaurant A Room In The West End for a number of years as I became friends with Peter Knight while playing with Boroughmuir Rugby Club.
I celebrated my 40th birthday with a meal at the restaurant; the food was great but a previous mural in the subterranean location was looking tired and needed refreshing. As the wine flowed I apparently told Peter this, and my charming rant must have struck a chord as several years later he called me up to commission a new mural.
A Room in the West End is already an established fixture on the Edinburgh culinary scene; the food is excellent and it’s nestled below Teuchters – a great bar in its own right. Owners Peter and John wanted me to paint a cafe crowd scene to create a buzz in the space and reflect their central Edinburgh location with an urban horizon that made the room look bigger.
The plan was to build a broader restaurant scene with the Edinburgh’s Old Town as a dramatic backdrop, and the crowd in the scene needed to be busy enough to make the restaurant feel bustling even when it was empty. We decided that some customers and staff would be included butultimately the crowd would be made up of Scottish celebrities. Some of these celebrities would also reflect the rugby heritage of the pub and restaurant, as Teuchters and A Room In The West End are one of Edinburgh’s favourite stops for rugby fans on their way to Murrayfield Stadium.
In mid November 2016, my wife Fiona and I got to work in the restaurant, covering the the old mural with an undercoat for my painting. I then began painting the Old Town landscape from one end to the other, and then worked back again, fixing all the roofs and windows. This took about week in total and I now know the Old Town horizon line in minute detail!
As this was in the build up to Christmas, fairy lights and baubles were hung from the paintings, doors and ceiling by Carol, one of the managers. As she was passing by me, I popped Santa on top of the Bank of Scotland at the top of the Mound for a little bit of festive fun.
I then began painting the crowd. Owner Peter and managers Stephen and Carol provided me with photo reference from some of the regulars in the bar. I started in the middle in a well lit area withportrait of Sheila Denney stood next to her good friend (and my studio manager) Sheila Masson.
Then I started to move down. The first celebrity that I put in was rugby commentator Bill McLaren – I had him handing out Hawick ball sweeties to a flustered Gavin Hastings, with his brother Scott laughing as he looks on. After setting the background scene I started to fill in the crowd, first painting some restaurant and bar regulars and then I had great fun painting the Big Yin – Billy Connolly. I decided to pop the 80s children’s tv star Super Gran in the background behind Billy as he appeared in the show and sang the theme tune. Close to Super Gran and Billy Connolly I painted the Reverend I.M. Jolly, aka Rikki Fulton.
About that time I heard the sad news that a favourite uncle of mine in Orkney, Charlie Rendall, had passed away and so I decided to paint him and his fabulous wife Muriel into the party scene. As I was on that theme, I added the portraits of two of my favourite aunts who passed away some years ago, and also my good friend Adriana together again with her daughter Chiara, who sadly also passed away.
As I dug up more Scottish-themed photo reference, it was becoming obvious to me that it was really becoming a nostalgia mural and so I popped in Leith favourites The Proclaimers. Next to them I added my wife Fiona chatting up the lady from the dress shop up the road, followed by my wife’s friend Nicky swigging from a bottle of champagne while her good friend and Edinburgh rock goddess Shirley Manson from the band Garbage is laughing away.
About this time restaurant owner Peter’s brother Andy was seeing the Facebook updates and asked where he was in the mural. I decided to expand the rock chick table and have Peter drinking a glass of wine with Shirley, Nicky, Susan Boyle, Lulu, KT Tunstall and Annie Lennox, while Lorraine Kelly looked on in the background. I thought that sounded like a fun table to dine at. Behind them I put Andy – he’s a bit of a character so I found a funny picture of him on his Facebook page and popped him in the background, being bored (along with the rest of the Still Game cast) by one of Isa Drennan’s gossipy stories.
I was coerced into putting myself in the signature spot at the far right end of the painting, so I also popped the rest of the Scots that I go on annual “Tartan Army” rugby tours with. These included my brother Danny (with his trademark hippo hat on) and our friend Andy, wearing a classic combo from a tour gone by – dressed as a captain from the German epic war film Das Boot. I thought it would be funny to make Sean Connery sit at the table with us, looking a bit grumpy.
I moved back to the middle of the restaurant and started to work left, heading toward North Bridge. I managed to paint a few more rugby legends in, including Boroughmuir stalwart and British Lion Bruce Hay, and the great Scotland coaching duo Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer. I was just starting work on Alex Ferguson and his wife when the Christmas holidays intervened. I stopped for a few weeks over Christmas for the festivities and to have a trip to Orkney for Hogmanay.
Before Christmas I had been getting up at six am and arriving on site at seven so that Peter could let me in to the restaurant before he dropped his kids off at school. That way most days I could paint about ten portraits by lunchtime, when the restaurant got busy I would need to clear out.
When I got back to Edinburgh after my Orkney trip, the Trainspotting 2 film release was imminent and coincidentally I had been planning on painting the characters from the first film into the mural. My friend Russell had involved in the production as his company ‘Driven Scotland’ provided the cars for the film, and so I said that I would paint the drivers’ portraits behind the Trainspotting stars.
I popped Dunblane tennis legends Andy and Jamie Murray behind them, along with children’s TV stars The Krankies. Finally I sat restaurant co-owner John alongside film actress Tilda Swinton and Dr. Who favourite Karen Gillan, so that John wouldn’t feel jealous of Peter being seated at the rock chick table – and then the mural was basically done.
After the completion I made a time lapse film of the creation of the mural which was then released to social media. Billy Connolly kindly give me permission to use the theme tune to Super Gran on the clip, which gave it a really strong Scottish tone without reverting to bagpipes, the name-dropping narrative of the song re-enforcing the celebrity nature of the picture.
The mural seems to have struck a chord with people as we’ve attracted great widespread national coverage with the mural, appearing in the Edinburgh Evening News, The Times, The Glasgow Herald, The National and The Sun.
Even better, the mural has received positive feedback from all the staff at the restaurant who have noticed a huge change in the atmosphere, and there is no lack of conversation at the adjoining as diners now celeb spot during their meals.
Plans are currently afoot to make further improvements upstairs in Teuchters pub, as well as to sister restaurant A Room in Leith (handily just steps from our new studio in Leith Custom House).
Full list of the celebs featured on the walls of A Room In The West End: Tilda Swinton, Shirley Manson, Sharleen Spiteri, Lulu, Annie Lennox, Susan Boyle, Lorraine Kelly, Rod Stewart, The Proclaimers, The cast of Still Game, Andy Murray, Jamie Murray, Danny Boyle, Kelly MacDonald, Shirley Henderson, J.K. Rowling, Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Sean Connery, Princess Anne, Billy Connolly, Alex Ferguson, Bill McLaren, Scott Hastings, Gavin Hastings, John Jeffry, David Sole, Jim Telfer, Ian McGeechan, Andy Irvine, The Krankies, Rikki Fulton, Karen Gillan, Super Gran and Shrek.
2017 was brought in with a bang – by playing in the Kirkwall Ba’.
All photos by Sheila Masson, unless otherwise indicated.
The Ba’ is a town-consuming obsession that possesses the capital of Orkney over the festive period. Where other Scottish towns are fixated on Santa and Hogmanay, the excitement building in Kirkwall revolves around the twice-annual Ba games which envelop the town on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Upon entering the town, the first thing you notice is that every window, door and fence is fortified at chest height with robust planks. Girded for battle, these literally prevent windows and doors from exploding under the pressure from the bodies of scores of men.
The Ba is a version of medieval football with recognisable elements of traditional rugby, and its players are the men of the town. There was a women’s game in the 1940s but it was short lived as it proved too violent. There are two games played; one for men and one for boys (up to age 15).
The rules of the game are simple. The two teams are known as the “Uppies” and the “Doonies”, with the player’s allegiance originally decided by whether he was born up or “doon” the “gate” (road). The ba itself is a beautiful custom-made leather medicine ball that is thrown into a maul of players by the winner of the game from 25 years previous. From that point there is no referee and no rules, save that the two teams self-police and have two distinct goals; the Uppies to touch the ba against a wall at the top of the town, and the Doonies must get it into the sea.
Once the ba has reached either of these points, the battle’s focus suddenly changes and becomes an internal struggle amongst the successful team to declare one of their players the winner and the recipient of that year’s ba. The players will battle amongst themselves to award the ba to a worthy recipient; one who has put years of service into earning this round, leather trophy.
The winning of a ba will be one of the greatest days of their lives, and wives and girlfriends are in no doubt as to the importance of this achievement as winners have been known to sleep with their ba for months after the game.
Orkney winters are cold so fathers sometimes have many children, but not all will win their Ba.
I have a strong Orkney heritage on my father’s side; my paternal grandmother was one of six indomitable sisters who each sired a prodigious litter of offspring. This has resulted in a host of cousins both in the Northern Isles of Westray and Papa Westray but also in Kirkwall. I occasionally find them leaping out from behind random bushes to explain our bloodline during my visits up from Edinburgh.
One of my dad’s first cousins, Muriel Rendall, has four daughters and one son; George Rendall. George himself has produced four daughters, and despite generations of female tempering, George has stayed very much in touch with his masculine side, winning his own ba twenty years ago this year. Despite the fact he is now well over 50, and the ba is definitely a young mans game, George still plays every year. His wife Katherine listens to the explanations as to why the next will be his last with a rueful smile, as each successive year he hauls his shirt on, straps on his steel-toed boots, and heads down to the main street once again.
When I was ten, George told me all about this century-old Orkney game and in my young mind it was the most exotic, ridiculous and spectacular game that I had ever heard of. I arranged games of class-on-class no rules ‘foul football’, played with a flat and exhausted ball – until our sport was eventually banned due to a nasty wrist break.
In 2003 I finally played for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long ambition. I may have been fourteen years younger then, but I’d also been laid low by the norovirus, gifted to me over Christmas dinner, I suspect an extra treat concealed in one of the colourful crackers.
I spent four days on the couch with a bucket at my side, losing pounds of muscle and several stones in man-fat in the process. On the journey up from Edinburgh, I had curled up in the rear seat of my brother’s car with my future wife Fiona. When we got to our digs, I turned the bathroom in my Auntie Muriel’s bed and breakfast into a small corner of hell, with my bum on the throne and my head in the sink, heaving long past the point of pointlessness.
The 2003 game lasted six and a half hours, and despite a valiant effort, we lost. We got stuck in a petrol station forecourt for several hours and it grew dark. Eventually we were marched forcibly, reluctantly tripping backwards up the road to defeat at the Uppie’s wall.
This experience made a big impression on me.
The Ba both unites and divides the community of Kirkwall in equal measure and in our family alone we have some cousins who are Doonies and some who are Uppies. Wilma Bichan, George’s sister, has a mix of Doonie and Uppie sons. One of whom, Kitt (an Uppie son) won a boy’s trophy. As I came in by sea (via the ferry) I play alongside some of my cousins with the Doonies.
I find it fascinating how this seemingly insane sporting event bonds the town so tightly and seems to forge a communal spirit that is quite unlike any other. The passion is muscular and infectious.
In the summer of 2016 while I was up in Orkney visiting relatives, I spotted an Orkney Islands Council pamphlet asking for ideas for potential improvements to their urban landscape. This was like a clarion call for me. They may have meant benches or street lights but that’s not what I had in mind.
Ever since playing in my first game, it has been an ambition to paint the Ba, and in my mind I have been building towards it. My career over the last few years has focussed on painting intense crowd scenes, beginning with my 2010 Jacobite Stramash painting, moving on to my epic 22 metre long Tam o’Shanter mural, the Edinburgh Hogmanay, the Joy of the Goal at Ibrox Stadium, the Battle of Bannockburn and many more. My emphasis has been on building massive, ambitious paintings that allow real people to contribute photo reference and to celebrate community-uniting events and joyful parties, both contemporary and historic.
The goal is that these paintings should create spaces which reflect community spirit and a collective humanity; a reaction against the proliferation of the idea that community does not exist. I paint manifesto artefacts that prove the opposite; jaw-dropping in scale, intensity and life. Over the last few years I have consistently stepped up the ambition and scale of the paintings that I make. The locations of these pictures have grown from restaurants, bars and museums to now including town centres and public art. My belief is that if you can build a virtual party, it is a small step to an actual gathering in the space next to it. My pictures create environments which feel busy and vibrant, adding atmosphere to previously quiet spaces. Several clients have remarked on the increase of footfall and business since my work was installed on their premises – job done!
From the outset, the Ba’ was a picture that I wanted to paint. The nature of these murals means that they take a huge amount of time and energy on my part, painting the likenesses of thousands of souls can leave me feeling like I’ve been emotionally mown down by a tour bus and dragged along the tarmac for months. Stories that have personal and emotional significance for me just makes the effort much easier to rationalise.
After I found the pamphlet, I made contact with the Orkney Island Council and we have had initial tentative discussions. Whilst there is enthusiasm on both sides, there are a large number of hurdles to jump over in order to make this happen.
Nevertheless, I used the potential mural-making opportunity as a pretext for playing the game again. I convinced my wife Fiona that at the age of 43, it was imperative that we head up to Kirkwall in late December through typical howling gales for the game.
Can we call it players provenance? If I don’t put my body on the line why should I get the shot?
We also took along my studio manager Sheila Masson who is an experienced and bloodthirsty photojournalist, in order to take reference photographs whilst I was otherwise occupied with the game.
This year, the New Year’s Day game was delayed until Monday, January 2nd as the Ba is never played on the sabbath. George took myself and his daughter Ellie’s fiancee Ben to a Doonie house to get ready, and there I met my cousin Devo MacPherson again for the first time since 2003. He’d been wearing his lucky Arran jumper last time we met, but he said it was long since discarded; “Must have shrunk’, he proclaimed, apparently nothing to do with the foot of lateral muscle he’d put on in the past decade.
I had omitted to bring any shin pads with me, optional protection in the brutal scrum. There were some raised eyebrows at my ingenious plan of splitting Highland Park whisky packaging tubes round my lower legs. The local distillery may be good for the tourists but sadly, given 30 minutes in the event, my improvised shin pads had all the protective properties of sweaty papier-mâché.
We strapped our boots on with duct tape to stop them from deserting our feet, and along with a keyed-up gang of Doonie foot soldiers, we made our way through the residential streets to the rallying pub in the centre of Kirkwall. This time around I definitely noticed the youth and vigour of some of the other players, but using the applied stupidity which I’ve honed to a keen edge, I resolved to forcefully ignore it.
As they entered the bar, every player was greeted with a hundred approving handshakes as he crossed the threshold; more meat for the grinder. Some swilled a restorative nip of whisky, while all filled their gut with water, and then the team marched en masse up the Main Street already filled with spectators, meeting the steely horde of Uppies in the shadow of St. Magnus Cathedral.
Onlookers lined the wall in front of the cathedral, leaning out of first floor windows, perched on the protective wooden barriers, spying familiar faces in the throng and shouting words of encouragement to their teams.
We were ready but in no doubt that the Uppies meant business. The Christmas game had seen a freak event totally at odds with the norm. The ba tapped down to a Doonie sprinter, who managed to run it to the sea without a finger laid on him. All over inside 15 minutes, without battle joined in earnest. After a year’s wait it was something of an anticlimax.
The game begins with the “throw up” – when the ba is hurled from the Mercat Cross into the seething mass of men, thrown by the winner from 25 years before. In this case it was a white bearded man with more than a hint of Kringle about him. As fate would have it when he threw it in, the ba landed just above my head – a gift! So I claimed it from amongst a sea of hands above my head and tucked the parcel in my gut, like I was on a rugby pitch. It wasn’t quite like that.
The pressure from the first squeeze forced the large ba into the area where I primarily keep my beer belly – an organ-rearranging and nauseating feeling quite unlike any I have ever felt before. I lasted about two minutes before I was obliged to push it round my pelvis and edge it back to members of my team. It was a small moment and had no impact on the game at all, but it mattered to me.
Part of me likes to believe that physical events like this can be reinterpreted as a concrete metaphor that has significance of future history… they are as real as I want them to be. Maybe this was meant to be…?
During the game, if the maul stays on the Main Street (as it did this year), instead of rolling down an alley the physical pressure is all the more intense – all 300 or so players can engage with the push. Every twenty minutes or so during the first hour, I had to retreat from the pack to relieve the rib-collapsing pressure on my sternum, threatening to crush my internal organs. I had to pull my chest forcibly apart and expand my heart and lungs before heading hack into the fray.
Despite the occasional sprinkle of rain, a lack of wind meant no fresh oxygen was reaching the players, and a mist of stale breath and man-steam hung in the air like dry ice – you could physically claw it aside. This all added to the heightened atmosphere, and even in moments of discomfort like this, the artist in me starts plotting; the muscular reality of the maul contrasted against the eerie Turner light effects rung a chord as a way forward for a picture.
I had been warned by George that I’d need to find my zen place. This was mine.
The game progressed, heaving in fits and starts towards the sea (to the delight of the Doonie spectators) but after we were stuck down an alleyway for over an hour, panting on the recycled breath of our peers with already crushed lungs, the novelty started to wear thin. Being forcefully scraped down the harled walls of an alleyway like dehydrated sardines on dry toast can rapidly lose its appeal.
Not for my son Red though, when I emerged he was aglow; eyes sparking, entranced by the action.
In a sick pastiche of my first game, we eventually left the alley by mutual consent. The Uppies had waited for dark and though we were no further than 250 metres from the sea at our closest, they managed a “smuggle” and a score of men successfully muscled it at a trot up the street to their goal – the Uppie wall. Players and spectators alike ran through the streets to follow the ba; I never saw the final moment of impact but from a distance the telltale flash of cameras told the fate of the day.
The game had lasted for around four hours. Back in the Doonie pub the mood was muted. After the crush of the day, I felt little enthusiasm for crowding for beer.
It had been a good game but we had lost. The only salt on my clothes was dried bitter sweat, not sweet salty brine. To be honest, I’m under no illusions – I was clearly just an enthusiastic pawn in the Ba (and maybe most people are). After the throw up and beyond that first significant moment, I really only fleetingly saw the ba once, as it squirted out of the top of the maul like a fat rogue salmon showing its belly, before ducking back into the maelstrom. Beyond that, I was just following mob rumour, chasing ghosts. There are tactics and there is strategy, but I’m under no illusions that I have any master perception in the game, so I just shut up and pushed. Although I also took joy in using stranger status to spoil it for Uppies, I have been asked multiple times by sceptics if I enjoyed the game; yes, but some of the experience is better in retrospect.
Hopefully, this now is a small first step in a long journey, and two years from now I will have painted the pictures that are in my head. The day after the Ba I again met with my contact at the council and we walked the streets of Kirkwall, looking at walls and spaces that might be appropriate locations for public art.
As we passed, I stared disbelieving at the abandoned alley that the day before had held a hundred men, now just haunted by the ghost of yesterday.
I’ve conceived a possible plan from this site visit which could tell a story of the Ba in a fair, balanced and dramatic way. It would be vital that despite my Doonie roots, both sides of the scrum get fair representation. I may have Orkney heritage but I am under no illusions that this is not my story; it’s intensely important to tell the story properly and represent the myth for the true faithful with integrity.
If I do get to paint the picture, my hope is that it would be the most ambitious and spectacular piece that I have ever made, in keeping with the monumental nature of the Kirkwall Ba. It’s a future history in my minds eye, but it would require the help and enthusiasm of the locals to make it happen.
Watch this space; for now, it’s baby steps. Hopefully as long as I keep my boots on my feet and that knot in my gut, we will get there in the end.