THE LEGENDS OF the Ba' are pretty gruesome, but the truth, as we're about to see, ain't any prettier.
From his wheelchair by the fireplace, Dugald McArthur asks his older sister, Samantha, to slip a tape into the VCR. She kills the lights, and for several moments the Scottish midwinter gloom takes over. We sit in the frigid dark of Dugald's Edinburgh apartment, watching the gas fire flicker in each other's eyes. Then the TV glows to life and fills with jumpy, amateur-hour footage of some kind of mass convulsion. Dozens of agonized male faces are packed together like grapes in a wine press, veins bulging from their temples. One red face strains high for air, but a hand slithers from the tangled bodies like a hunting anaconda and clamps down over his mouth. Red Face wrenches from side to side, his nostrils flaring, but the hand is merciless.
Samantha's mug is frozen in morbid fascination. But Dugald, a hearty 30-year-old quadriplegic who broke his spine four years ago in a standard rugby match, is absolutely beaming. "Look a' him," he says of Red Face. "Chokin' his lungs out, and hangin' on for glory." He shakes his head in admiration. "Sheer bloody-mindedness, tha' is."
Bloody-mindedness, he explains, is the very essence of what we're watching: the Ba', an ancient game of mob ball played only in the town of Kirkwall, on the Scottish island of Orkney in the North Sea. In two free-for-alls, on Christmas and New Year's Day, hundreds of Kirkwall's men, north-siders ("Uppies") versus south-siders ("Doonies"), meet head-on and rampage through the streets trying to keep possession of a three-pound, handcrafted leather ball—the ba'—modeled after a human head. There's no referee, game clock, or force majeure, so the Ba', which starts at one o'clock in the afternoon, often rages into the night and through any nastiness—blizzards, gales, waves smashing over the seawall.
"Imagine rugby wi' hundreds of very tough men, and only one chance t' score," says Dugald. There's no limit on players—in modern times, sides have numbered as few as 20 during World War II, to 300 after the war and up to the present day—and no rules, except one: The Doonies have to dunk the ba' in the harbor to win, while the Uppies have to touch the ba' to a wall called the Long Corner on the far side of town. Otherwise, anything goes: You can kick, punch, head-butt, smash out windows, break down doors, run through houses, or advance the ball by stuffing it down the sewer and fishing it out a few blocks away (all time-tested tactics, by the way). Because there are no fouls or penalties, paramedics stand by for the inevitable crushed ribs and broken legs.
"Ah! Go, Dugie!" Dugald's sister has just spotted his sweaty blond head in the video. The footage we're watching was taken in 1994, the last time Dugald Ba'ed before he was paralyzed. He's jammed amid hundreds of shoulders all heaving in unison. There's a roar like a cattle drive, a thunder of stomping boots and raw-throated bellows, but...the mob doesn't move. Unless one side outbatters the other or somehow sneaks the ba' out for an end run, that human berm can remain in place for hours, grunting and shoving well past dark.
In its thousand-or-so-year history, few outsiders have ever witnessed the Ba', let alone joined it. Vicious storms make the two-hour passage across Pentland Firth from mainland Scotland to Orkney tough in winter. It's just as hard to penetrate the clannishness of islanders who've lived and played apart from the world for generations. Nevertheless, I wanted to take a stab at it, and Samantha, whom I'd met years before as a foreign correspondent in Portugal, introduced me to Dugald. He agreed to act as my coach and sponsor, setting me up to take his place on the Doonie squad.
Dugald is what you'd expect of a North Sea shark fisherman's son: quietly macho, witty, and direct. I keep waiting for him to warn me off, to use his own crippling accident and this video to scare me straight. Instead, he's exhilarated, delighting in the Ba's peculiar features—like the dense cloud of steam hanging over the mob. "Horrible," Dugald exults. "All underarms and whisky."