The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The Stromness Ba’

Centuries ago there was a tradition of playing football in the islands and parishes of Orkney. In 1797 it was recorded that "Football is the principal diversion of the common people, which they practise with great dexterity".

This mass football game had no sides, no goals and no touchlines. The only rule was that the ball had to be kicked and could not be lifted.

The game was played using an inflated bladder of a cow, sheep or pig which was encased in leather and made by the local cobbler.

The game was normally played on the parish green on Old Christmas Day or Yule Day. By the early part of the 19th century a ba' had become an established part of parish activities.

It is not know when the Ba was first played in Stomness but the first recorded event was on Christmas Day 1884. The contestants were known as Northenders and Southenders. The game lasted just over an hour and was won by the Southenders.

The contestants that take part in the Kirkwall Ba' are either Uppies or Doonies and the team you play for depends on where you were born.

The game played in Stomness was different. Whether you were a south or northender depended on where you lived, rather than your place of birth. The boundary was the burn that ran under and across Graham Place.

Ba being played at Stromness pier head c.1910 © Orkney Library & Archive

In the first years of play the starting point varied from time to time and so did the Southenders goal. The ba' was normally thrown up at Jessie Leask's Corner at Graham Place. The Southenders had to reach the foot of Hellihole Road while the Northenders had to take the ba’ to the Warehouse building at the pier and touch it against the south wall.

The Southenders were disadvantaged as they had to get up the steep slope at Dundas Street so the start of the game was moved to the foot of Church Road to make the game fairer.  The 'goal posts' were now the Warehouse building and the foot of Dundas Street.

By New Year's Day 1890 the game was well established. And in 1904 a Boy's version was introduced. In 1907 three games were played – the Men's, the Lad's and the Juveniles. In 1909 individual winners were named for the first time with Stewart Spence and John Lee winning both the ba's for the Northenders.

Although popular with players and spectators there were complaints from others who felt it was a disgrace to hold a game of football in the streets. A disapproving correspondent said of the game: "The streets were quiet until the ba’ was thrown up, and then the usual struggle commenced, but happily it did not last long."

In 1909 a reporter for The Orcadian stated that there was no science displayed, only brute strength to push the leather to either side, and it would be in the interest of everyone to stop "this silly game".

Another commented that it was "a most disgraceful scene on the public street, and the wonder is that the Town Council do not prohibit it as they undoubtedly have the power to do".

Opposition to the game continued over the years and in 1913 the general opinion seemed to be that the Town Council should step in and prohibit the game.

Three games took place on Christmas Day and New Year's Day in 1915 and the Town Council, fearing the game would be played the following year, met to discuss the matter.

The members unanimously agreed that "football should not be played on the streets either on Christmas or New Year’s Day and the Provost of Stromness was instructed to see the senior Naval Officer of the Port that he might lend assistance in carrying this out".

The 'ba

The ba' continued to be played for a few more years with the players saying they would pay for any damages but support for it was dwindling. Fewer players took part and poor weather saw less spectators turning up.

The final nail in the coffin came when Guilio Fugaccia installed a large plate-glass window in his café in Victoria Street. The councillors felt that the possibility of having to replace the window was too costly and there was a real danger to the players and spectators. With this ammunition in their grasp, they banned the game.