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.