Orkney Islands Riot

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

A Severed Head, a Pint of Skullsplitter, and Thou

   
 

 
 

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."


   
   
   
 

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.


 
   
 

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.


 
   
 

FOUR HOURS later, the pub of the Royal Hotel on Victoria Street looks like a church basement after a hurricane. Uppies and Doonies come filing in silently, their heads bleeding, their clothes in tatters. Despite Doonie efforts to sneak the ba' over a shed roof, the Uppies proved indomitable, winning it for the second time in a week. Step by step, we were backed down the lane to Long Corner until, just after 5 p.m., the ba' was tapped against the wall. Big Davie Flett, a security man from the Scapa distillery, was hoisted aloft by his fellow Uppies. Weeping, he kissed the ba', then tucked it under the shreds of his sweater.

The pub is uncannily quiet, just chatting, murmurs, chuckles, wry smiles.

"What'll you have, Doonie?" I hear an Uppie ask.

"Dram a' whisky," the Doonie responds, then adds, "mate." 

Christopher McDougall revealed the secret of Kenyan runners' success in the September 2000 issue.


 
More Culture

Holiday Subscription Sale! Save 79% and Get a Free Gift!

Subscribe
Pinterest Icon