The Yule Tree, Stromness
As well as competing in the Stromness Ba’ game, the Northenders and Southenders took part in a tug-of-war style game which was played on Christmas Eve, traditionally the time of the Yule log.
There is no evidence as to when this Yule Tree event first happened. The first written account of it is from 1907 although the custom was observed in the early 1890s.
On Christmas Eve a tree would disappear from a garden in Stromness. This was usually done without the knowledge or consent of the owner and was generally seen as part of the fun.
The prize was carried through the streets to Jessie Leask’s corner in Graham Place where chains, wire ropes or stout ropes were fastened to the ends and the tug-of-war began.
The Southenders tried to pull the prize to Ma Humph’s Pier while the opposing team tried to drag it to the New Pier.
When the game was won the tree was either thrown into the sea or taken on to the foreshore and burned.
Sometimes the tree was chosen during the hours of daylight and, on one occasion, after much searching, a suitable tree was located and the competitors managed to saw through the trunk. They returned that evening to collect their prize, only to find the owner had taken advantage of the felled tree and turned it into firewood.
The game was fiercely contested and dirty tricks were not uncommon. Once, when the struggle was at its peak, a sneaky contestant threw pepper into the faces of the opposing team. Blinded, they could do little but allow their competitors to take the prize.
On another occasion the Northenders found that, no matter how they tried, they could not budge the Southenders. Eventually the cause was discovered. In the darkness the Southenders had secured the rope to an iron bar which was fixed in the wall at their backs.
The game was rough and sometimes dangerous. Shop doors and windows were barricaded and shutters were put up. Such was the tussle for the tree that it could break and if this happened an old boat might be obtained which was then dragged through the streets.
A disapproving Town Council tried to ban the event in 1933. During the two previous years the trees had been taken from one particular garden and this had caused damage to both the garden and the surrounding walls.
The council was expected to pay for the damage and on this occasion they decided that, in future, the custom of the Yule Tree would only be allowed if the tree was donated and that the gift was confirmed in writing by the donor.
It was also decided that the following bill be displayed before Christmas Eve 1933: "That the cutting down of a tree or trees in any person’s garden must be done only with the written consent of the owner of the garden and handed to the Police, who will have the same verified by the person or persons signing the purported note. If this notice is not adhered to prosecution of offender sill follow. By Order."
The game managed to struggle on under these restrictions for a few more years but the fun and enthusiasm had been taken out of the game and the last one was held in 1936.
There were attempts to re-establish the game after World War II but poor weather and scornful remarks from older men in the town did not encourage the younger members to revive the custom.
To read more about the Stromness Ba’ and Yule Tree custom read The Kirkwall Ba’: Between the Water and the Wall by John D M Robertson, published by Dunedin Academic Press.