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

KIRKWALL, ON NEW YEAR'S morning, is braced for invasion—as it was for the Christmas Ba' the week before. Every bank, shop, and home in the town center is barricaded, not with the plywood sheets you'd use for a hurricane, but with oak beams three inches thick and lag-bolted deep into the mortar. Homemade gates are rigged over entryways.

By noon a storm is blowing in. Rain is slashing slantwise, mixing with spray from waves smashing into jetty walls. Wind is shaking bare branches of naked shrubbery. "Gale's a-coomin'," predicts Mary Flett, the proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast where I'm staying. Her husband, Lyle, a retired bank clerk, is a Ba' man who won it with the Doonies 19 years ago. The ba' he dunked still hangs, from screws through its cork center, in the front window. (One man from the winning squad keeps the ba' as a trophy.) Peering beneath it, Mary studies the sky. "Crows are all gone from the chimneys, heading for safer ground," she observes.

Not the men of Kirkwall. Nor the wanna-be Ba' men. I pull on old jeans, three frayed shirts, and a pair of Bill McArthur's knee-high fishing boots, the ones with the steel-capped toes and shark-blood stains that I'm wearing at Dugald's insistence. Days before, Dugald kept glancing nervously at my boots, a pair of ankle-high Timberlands. "You're not wearing those, are ye?"

"I've got some sneakers."

"God, no, man. They'll kick your legs bloody and tear 'm off yer feet."

While it demands raw force, the Ba' also has its own subtle science. Hidden within that massive scrum is all the strategizing and invisible messaging of a guerrilla army. Victory depends on smuggles and elaborate chains. "You could bring in the New Zealand rugby team, or your American footballers, and they couldn't win the Ba'," Dugald said. "It's very complex."

One year, for example, the Uppies, then in possession of the ba' but trapped by the Doonies in a hopeless clot of straining men, devised a cunning ruse. A small group wrapped their arms around a teammate's head and dragged him out of the scrum by the neck. The Doonies, mistaking his crew-cut melon for the ba', broke ranks and charged after the breakaway squad. As soon as they did, the true ba'-holder hightailed it the other way. It was a tough sacrifice for the Uppie decoy—he got hard-tackled to the street and took a few steel-toes to the rib cage once the Doonies realized they had been tricked—but from where he lay sprawled on the cobblestones, he had the satisfaction of watching his teammates disappear toward the Long Corner, and victory.

Watch out for women along the sidelines, Dugald warned; they're notorious for smacking players with their umbrellas and tripping them when they try to break from the scrum. Old Mary Muir, her yappy poodle under her arm and an unfiltered cigarette in her mouth, walloped many an Uppie with a walking stick in her time, screaming, "C'moon, ye buggers! SHOVE IT ALONG, NOO!" Doonie women will carry two bottles of drinking water: one fresh for their own boys, the other seawater for unwitting Uppies. Some women have been known to slice players' belts with fillet knives so their pants fall down.

As I'm about to go squishing out of the Fletts' house in my fishing boots, Lyle pulls me aside for a send-off whisky. His wife pulls me aside for another. Getting more courageous by the ounce, I finally head down to the pier, where the Doonies are gathering. Our leader is Graeme "The Beast" King, a monstrous 40-year-old airport fireman with a shaved head and duct tape wrapped around his fists. By his side is Alan Hutchinson, a spry 50-year-old distillery employee who offers me this advice: "If you get in the heart of it, you don't know you'll ever taste sweet air again. All you can do is relax and pray for God's mercy."

As 1 p.m. approaches, our Doonie army advances toward the cathedral. A block away we hear the rumble of hobnails on cobblestone, and then the lane ahead of us is full of Uppies, marching shoulder-to-shoulder. We meet at the Mercat Cross, a six-foot, 400-year-old sandstone landmark at Kirkwall's center, and stop.

Dan Grieve, Ba' champion of 1952, has this year's "throw-up" honors. He climbs atop the stone wall outside St. Magnus Cathedral, positioning himself next to the Mercat Cross. Slowly turning the ba' in his thick hands, Grieve surveys the 300 or so of us shoving and elbowing for position before him. The Beast has bulled his way to a primo spot right in front. The fatter Doonies, I notice, are clotting the lane toward the Uppie goal, and our fleeter brothers are hanging on the fringe, hoping for a fast break.

"A boo'le of the broon if you kin reach the basin from thar, Danny Boy!" a Doonie shouts. Translation: Heave the ball toward the harbor and we'll give you a bottle of whisky.

"He'll toss it fair, or we'll skelp his arse," an Uppie warns.

"Play hard, men!" Grieve cries, ignoring the threats and bribes. "Run it hard and fair!" Then he swings the ba' deep between his knees, bucket-style, and lobs it into the heart of the crowd a few feet from me.

I'd planned to play modestly, but now that the prize is within reach, I start toying with a notion that popped into my head after the Fletts' second whisky: I could win this thing. Who better to pull off a smuggle? Hardly anybody knows if I'm an Uppie or a Doonie. They all know one another, so there's no need for jerseys. But they don't know me!

It takes just a few seconds to kill this fantasy. The scrabbling becomes ferocious as the pack presses tight, then still tighter around the spot where the ba' disappeared. Layer after layer of Orcadian is piling on behind me. My legs are twisting beneath me, my feet searching desperately for even ground among the shifting boots and tumbled bodies. Each time the crowd surges, I'm completely off my feet, the pressure of the pack keeping me aloft.

A fisherman staggers from the scrum, his nose streaming. A paramedic rushes up to help, but the bloodied man—yellow overalls, sardine-y aroma—pulls away and rushes back into the mob with a cry of "On, Doonie boys!" Suffocating, I crane my head above the crowd, gasping for air but taking in only steaming sweat and fumes of scotch. My ribs are being crushed, my arms trapped. One leg is vised behind me. A single phrase starts beating through my mind: "Not my fight... Not my fight..." With the next shift I squirm free, hauling myself from the mess to join the bystanders, my head spinning.

Elapsed time: approximately three minutes.

Next to me, a young player with a massive beer belly is dragged out by the armpits and dumped on the pavement. He's gasping and bulgy-eyed, like a boated bass. "Have a nice nap, Doonie," a voice taunts. The downed Doonie wobbles to his feet, but his knees cave and he plops back down. Above us, an Uppie perched atop a phone booth like a leopard searches the pack below for sign of the leather pumpkin, ready to hurl himself down on it.

As I hunch over to catch my breath, it dawns on me that four games are going on at once. At the center are the team leaders, who fight hand-to-hand for possession of the ba'. Surrounding them is a thick wall of partisans who act as insulation, preventing rivals from either crashing into the core or fast-breaking out with the ba'. At the edge, dozens of players are swarming like antibodies, trying to shove the crowd toward their goal. Finally, old men on the periphery circle like pilot fish, shouting directions and, during surges, hurling their weight onto the pack.

"C'mon noo Doonies, fuckin' SQUEEEEEEZE!" a man of at least 70 years cries from the sidelines before throwing himself onto the pack like a bodysurfer. Shamed, I shove back in. Again, so many Orcadians circle around and pile on behind me that without moving a step I'm near the middle of the scrum. A ripple passes through the mob; it seems to be shifting, yet for some weird reason my feet are planted in place.

A wrist wrapped in black electrical tape rises above the crowd. Next to it rises another in duct tape, the two limbs looking like zombie claws pushing up from the grave. Slowly, they wave toward the harbor, a sign that somewhere deep in the scrum the Doonies have wrestled the ball away and are ready to start moving back. "To the sea, Doonies!"

Next to me, a middle-aged guy in blue lineman's overalls is rearing back and belly-flopping, again and again, onto the pack. He spots me. "I'd say your American boys would love this, eh?" he wheezes. "Them footballers, I mean—the big boys. Last game a man can be a man in."

Suddenly, the Beast is bellowing frantically: "Boys, will ya listen! There's a boy in serious trouble here! Git back!" The scrum collapsed, trapping several players on the cobblestones. "Back away boys, back away!" The pack loosens, and two men are dragged out. One, we'll learn later, has a broken collarbone; the other, a broken leg.

As the paramedics shoulder through, a commotion breaks out near the spectators. The treachery! While the Beast was helping the injured men, the Uppies were burrowing the ba' back between their legs. Once they got it to the back of the pack, the last Uppie hotfooted it around the end. He pays for it under a dog pile of Doonies, but the Uppies now have the momentum. Twenty yards becomes 40, then 60, till a wise old Doonie calls for a logjam. "Jam it up against the wall, Doonies! We'll wait the fuckers out!" With a hundred-throated howl, the Doonies crush the Uppies against the wall of the narrow lane.


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