A Severed Head, a Pint of Skullsplitter, and Thou

Twice a year, the good men of Scotland's Orkney Islands work out their issues the old-fashioned way. They riot.

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

FROM THE MOMENT you step aboard the Orkney ferry from Scrabster, a fishing village on Scotland's remote northern tip, you leave behind the Scotland of kilts and bagpipes and steam toward the Scotland of mystic tribes and seafaring marauders. Instead of the typical clan tartans, the Orkney ferry is decorated with posters of dragon-bowed great boats and warriors in horned helmets shoving flaming coffins out into the waves. That the ferry chooses to advertise with images of death at sea is no accident. Although the last of the Vikings left Orkney in the 15th century, Orcadians treasure their Scandinavian heritage, insisting that they're Norsemen, not Brits, and hammering the point by naming their sons after Thorfinn the Mighty and Magnus the Holy. They've retained their sea legs, too. While the few mainlanders on board tend to make the crossing flat on their backs, barf bags at hand, the Orcadians tuck into fish, chips, and baked beans, washing it all down with pints of Skullsplitter, the local ale.

Aside from Orkney proper, there are 70 tinier isles, some with fewer than 50 inhabitants; Kirkwall has 8,000. Studded with antiquity, the islands have more Stonehenge-like monuments and chambered tombs, acre for acre, than any spot in Northern Europe.

The islanders believe that the Ba' was born nearly a millennium ago, when two boatloads of Vikings kicked around the head of a fallen Scottish enemy, the Earl of Tusk—"the hated Tusker" in the a.d. 1200 Scandinavian epic, Orkneyinga Saga. From this savagery came a flash of athletic inspiration: The sons of Thor had discovered the rudiments of team play—a game piece and a goal—and had such a blast that they made it a tradition, each New Year's selecting one hapless prisoner whose noggin would serve as game ball.

Not all Ba' aficionados adhere to the Viking origin myth, however. Jock Robertson, a self-styled Ba' historian from Orkney, blames the French. He traces it from an ancient fertility rite, called soulé, "sun." "If the farmers dragged the ball inland toward the fields, they were assured fertile crops," Robertson says. "But if the fishermen dragged it down to the sea, they'd have teeming waters." The rules of soulé in the 1100s, or lack thereof, are akin to those of today's Ba', Jock argues; there was even a special legal pardon for players who mistakenly kicked an attached, living head instead of the ball.

Settling the score on the Ba's origins is no easy trick. While the ancient Norse game of sopleg is strikingly similar to today's Ba', it's difficult to establish whether the Ba' was an inspiration for, or evolved independently from, mainland games of mob ball, and later soccer and rugby. (Soccer, certainly, has other origins in Greece, Japan, and the UK.)

Whatever the derivation, Orcadians have no use for the niceties that govern the mainlanders' games today. True, they've substituted leather for the real McCoy, but otherwise they've kept the Ba' as ruthless and ruleless as ever. And after only a few days in Kirkland it's not hard to see why: The Orkneys still draw the same breed of back-to-nature, die-hard settler they always have.

Take Dugald's family. The McArthurs moved to Sanday, a small satellite isle of Orkney Island, 25 years ago when Dugald and Samantha's dad, Bill McArthur, then 38, decided to sell his Edinburgh graphic design business and become a shark fisherman. Bill still takes to the seas despite a close call a few years ago when a shark capsized his skiff and his single flare alerted the only boat within miles.

Payback for the harsh life includes the northern lights, clear-running trout streams, beautiful beaches where seals come to shore when you sing, and solidarity. Unlike mainland Scotland, where moribund mining and manufacturing has left 7.4 percent of the country jobless, only 3 percent of Orkney is out of work, and most are relatively well-off thanks to robust salmon waters, the esteemed Highland Park and Scapa scotch distilleries, and the discovery of oil in the North Sea's Scapa Flow in the 1970s. "If you live here, you never have to worry about a job," says one transplant. "Orkney people look out for each other."

The flip side of this solidarity, however, may well explain the Ba's enduring popularity. On islands where neighbors must rely on each other, the Ba' functions as an escape valve, allowing the islanders to purge all the accumulated grudges in year-ending orgies of aggression.


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