Category: Folklore & Customs

Barbara Yule’s Ba’, 75th Anniversary of the Women’s Ba’, 1945/6-2020/1.

Barbara Yule’s Ba’, right.

Tom Muir: Engagement & Exhibitions Officer

The Men’s Ba’, Christmas Day 1925, the year that Barbara Yule was born. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’, as it is simply known (meaning ‘ball’) is not being played this year due to Covid-19. Christmas Day 2020 is the first time that the game has not been played since New Year’s Day 1945, as the Ba’ was suspended during both World Wars. But when it restarted after World War II, on Christmas Day 1945, there was a new addition to the ancient game – a Women’s Ba’.

A group of men and boys pose with the Ba’ outside the gates of Tankerness House (Orkney Museum) on Christmas day 1912. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’ was first recorded in Kirkwall around 1650, but it was said to have been an ancient game even then. It is likely that it dates back to at least Medieval Times when mass football games were played as part of the Yule celebrations. In the 1650s it was a fast-moving football game, using an inflated pig’s bladder as the ball, which was played on the ‘Ba’ Lea’, the area of rising ground to the east of St Magnus Cathedral. It later moved onto the streets of Kirkwall around 1800, but was not picked up and played in a rugby style scrum until the 1850s. This meant that the fragile inflated pig’s bladder was not suitable and it was instead made from panels of leather stitched together and filled with cork dust, which was used as packing in barrels of grapes. This style of game has survived until the present day.

The Ba’ scrum against the archway at Tankerness House, New Year’s Day 1912. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’ had always been a male only sport, although women had unofficially joined in on occasions. There was a Boy’s Ba’ in the morning, usually at 10.00 a.m. and for a short time from 1892-1910 there was a Youth’s Ba’, played around 11.00 a.m., then the Men’s Ba’ at 1.00 p.m.

The Ba’ is ‘thrown up’ at the Market Cross in front of St Magnus Cathedral to the waiting crowd. There are two teams, Up-the Gate (Uppies) and Down-the-Gate (Doonies), who have to get it to their respective goals; the Doonies have to get it into the harbour while the Uppies have to get it to Mackinson’s Corner, where Main Street meets New Scapa Road. This was originally the site of Burgar’s Bay, the southern most part of the Peerie Sea, so it was a water goal for both teams until reclamation of the Peerie Sea during the 19th and 20th centuries. There are no restriction on numbers on either side and no rules. It has been suggested that the divisions was the area of Kirkwall that belonged to the Earl (Doonies) and the Bishop (Uppies). The term ‘Gate’ is from the Old Norse word for a street. What team you played for depended on where in Kirkwall you were born, or where you first entered the town. These days it goes with family tradition, as all babies are now born in hospital rather than at home.

The Ba’ in Victoria Street. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)
The Boy’s Ba’ in Albert Street. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’ was by no means unique to Kirkwall as most of the islands and parishes in Orkney had their own games. It was dying out by the early 20th century and World War I saw it end in many places. After the men returned from the war there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm for it. A few islands and parishes restarted their own games, but gave up after a year or two. Only the Kirkwall and Stromness games continued. The Stromness game, which was a transplant from Kirkwall, ended in the 1920s when a large plate-glass window was installed in a cafe in the street and the local council refused to pay for any damages to it, so banned the game. Attempts to ban the game in Kirkwall, or move it to a designated field outside the town, failed. To this day you can see the barricades going over shop and house doors and windows on the run-up to Christmas. Outside of the season the round metal fittings, threaded to take a bolt, can be seen on shop fronts along the streets.

Ba’ barricades along Albert Street. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)
(Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)
(Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

But Christmas Day 1945 was a see a change; if only for one season. After World War II the women demanded their own Ba’ game. It was greeted with hostility from the men, but amazingly it went ahead. The Orkney Museum is fortunate to have the first Women’s Ba’ that was played for in our collection. We display many Ba’s, as they not only show the different styles over the years, but also it is to honour the families who have donated them. The Ba’ is awarded to a long-serving player on the winning side at the end of the game. For a Ba’ playing family this is a huge honour and the Ba’ is treasured. It is a big thing for anyone to offer a Ba’ to the museum, and so it was for the Clitherow family of Edmonton, London. On the death of Barbara (nee Yule) in December 1999 her husband and children contacted the museum to offer us the Ba’. It was her wish that her Ba’ should “go home”.

Ba’ display, showing a variety of Men’s, Youths’ and Boys’ Ba’s, as well as figurines based on the game.

On Christmas Day 1945 between twenty and thirty women gathered on Broad Street for the throw-up at 11.30 a.m. This was a controversial game and there was some hostility from the men. Soon after the game started the Ba’ was stolen by a man, so the New Year’s Day Ba’ had to be sent for. Before it arrived the missing Ba’ was found hidden in the graveyard of St Magnus Cathedral and was thrown-up for a second time. The two sides were evenly matched, but the Uppies got the upper hand and the Ba’ went up Victoria Street. The Doonies rallied and the Ba’ went back to Broad Street and down Castle Street into Junction Road. Here the Ba’ became stuck at the old police station (on the site of the new Orkney Library & Archive) and it was decided that it should be thrown-up a third time. This time the Uppies took possession of the Ba’ and it reached their goal just before 1.00 p.m. The Ba’ was awarded to Barbara Yule, Wellington Street, Kirkwall, who was regarded as being the leading player in the game.

The New Year’s Day Women’s Ba’, 1946, also went up in under five minutes and was awarded to Violet Couper, Watergate, Kirkwall, who was a student at the Kirkwall Grammar School. It was said that the Women’s Ba’ was a much faster-moving game than the Men’s Ba’, which relies on force to push the scrum along the streets.

Barbara Yule’s Ba’, with a photograph of her (right).

This was to be the only season in which women had their own game. There was protests from men that it was ‘unladylike’ and it was abolished. An attempt to have a Women’s Ba’ in 2000, as part of the Millennial celebrations, was turned down by the Ba’ Committee.

Barbara Yule left Orkney soon after to make a new home for herself in London. Here she met John Clitherow, who was a cousin of her sister Rose’s husband. They were married in 1950 and had four sons and one daughter. They owned a grocers shop in Tottenham for several years, before it was bought by the council as the area was to be redevelopment. They bought another shop, opposite Tottenham Hotspurs football ground and later moved to a house in Edmonton in the London district of Enfield.

Barbara had to stop work due to arthritis. She was later diagnosed with amyloidosis in 1999 and died a few months later on 22nd December. It was always her wish that her Ba’ should return to Orkney, so in August 2000 members of her family took the Ba’ ‘home’ to Orkney and presented it to the Orkney Museum. As a tribute to his wife, her husband, John, wound a few strands of Barbara’s hair around the end panel of the Ba’.

The Women's Ba in the Orkney Museum
The Ba that Barbara Yule won on Christmas Day 1945 was not a new one. The scarcity of materials meant that old Ba’ had to be played for until 1952. This Ba’ was originally won by Andrew Shearer for the Uppies on Christmas Day 1934. For him to donate his treasured Ba’ for a women’s game showed that not all men were opposed to the Women’s Ba’.

The Eynhallow Laments

How the Fin Folk Lost Eynhallow. Bryce Wilson.

Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. You can view it in another blog page (see ‘St Magnus Cathedral’ in the Main Menu).

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Gordon MacLellan, storyteller, poet and artist.

For my piece I decided to revisit poetry, for the first time in years. A storytelling event was fine, but this saw me outside of my comfort zone. I decided to focus on the tiny island of Eynhallow; Eyinhelga in Old Norse, meaning the holy island. I decided to write three prose poems that dealt with different aspects of Eynhallow. I used folklore, medieval history and an invented boating disaster in the 19th century as the basis for the poems. They take the form of three laments, giving the trilogy the title of ‘The Eynhallow Laments’

The Fin Folk’s Lament

There was a folk tale about how this was one of the vanishing islands of the Fin Folk, a magical race of beings who lived under the sea, but whose summer homes were islands that float on the surface of the sea. These islands were normally invisible to mortal eyes. A local man, whose new wife had been abducted by a Fin Man, seeks his revenge and gains the knowledge of how to see the island and to win it from the Fin Folk. He and his three sons reach the island, but the Fin Folk conjure up magical sights to frighten them off, but to no avail. The island was taken when nine rings of salt was sown around the island and nine crosses cut into its turf. The youngest son had big hands, so the last ring was not completed. I decided to write it from the perspective of a Fin child who was there that day and witnessed the tragedy that befell her people.

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Eynhallow Church and monastery, 12th century. Gordn MacLellan.

Brother Dagfinn’s Lament

The second poem is told from the perspective of a monk living on Eynhallow in the 12th century, and draws heavily from the Orkneyinga Saga. He is at peace now, but he reminisces about witnessing the martyrdom of St Magnus and his own fate for disobeying the orders of jarl and bishop. Again, the constant here are the selkies that sing on the shore. They appeared in the first poem and will play a more prominent role in the third and final one.

Eynhallow (centre) as seen from Rousay. Max Fletcher.

Clara’s Lament

The third, and final poem had to be the most challenging for me. It is set in the 19th century and told from the perspective of a young woman who had just been widowed when her husband’s boat is capsized in the Eynhallow Sound. It brings in her grief and her feeling of hopelessness. Here the old tales and beliefs come together to create the final conclusion. I had originally wanted to have a young woman read this, but Covid 19 and the lockdown made that more difficult than it would have been normally. Having to read it myself I decided to just be me, no Monty Python type impressions of a female voice. It is not comedy. So, I had to read it as the writer, but using my storytelling skills I had to put as much emotion into it as I could. I had to feel Clara’s grief and despair. It is not up to me to say whether it worked or not, but I did have tears in my eyes after I had finished recording it in a small attic bedroom in our home.

One of the powerful ‘roosts’ that lie on either side of Eynhallow. For the scale of these waves, note the seagull in the bottom right of the photograph. Max Fletcher.
Selkies. Tom Muir.

For more information on the CelebrationEarth! project, follow this link.

For more information about Eynhallow, follow this link to Max Fletcher’s excellent ‘Rousay Remembered’ website.

The Unsilent Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral. Dr Raymond Parks.

Tom Muir

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Gordon MacLellan.

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. The music and story are all Fran’s own work. My contribution will appear in another blog. Here is Fran’s piece, ‘The Unsilent Cathedral’.

For more information about CelebrateEarth! you can follow their blog here.

Between Islands Project, Film 15 (Shetland/Orkney)

Skeklers, Fetlar. Shetland Museum.

[Alex MacDonald, coordinator, Between Islands]

This week we feature the second in our Island fiddle tradition films, with Louise Bichan from Orkney providing the tunes. As well as recording this piece for us, Louise has also collaborated with cellist Neil Johnstone from the Isle of Lewis for the forthcoming Between Islands CD. All our artists have now completed their new recordings and we are now beginning the process of CD manufacture, with a release date of December.  In the meantime, we will continue to feature their online performances in the coming months.

With Halloween just passed, I would also like to highlight this film about the Shetland Skeklers, as it features an audio interview with someone who recalls the tradition. (click on the ‘Skeklers’ link below)

The Scotsman also carried this article recently featuring the wonderful photography of Margaret Fay Shaw from the 1930’s with information on the older tradition of guising.

leis gach durachd 

The Witch’s Spell Box

Church display containing the witch’s spell box (left foreground).

[Tom Muir]

In the Merchant Laird’s Gallery in the Orkney Museum there is one of the strangest artefacts that is on display in the museum. Very little is known about it, other than it was discovered buried in peat somewhere near Stromness. It belongs to the Stromness Museum but has been on loan to us for the last 25 years.

It was a wooden box, now in fragments, which contained a number of strange things. It has been interpreted as a ‘witch’s spell box’.

The witch’s spell box, with contents. My apologies for the poor quality of the photograph, it was done quickly on the last day before lockdown in March 2020.

The photograph above is not the clearest, but it does show the remains of the wooden box (the fragments at the back) with its contents at the front. They are, from left to right, pieces of burnt cake (inside a modern, round container), a lathe-turned wooden eggcup, Two small pieces of copper, a broken and incomplete jet bangle, a walnut shell (inside the bangle), a copper pin or skewer with a wooden handle, several wooden pins.

The witch’s spell box, detail.

From what time period the spell box dates from is unknown, as is its uses. There are many people out there who know more about witchcraft than me and who will know what these sorts of things could be used for. Were the spells cast for good or evil? Was this the kit of someone who practiced magic to help or hurt people and animals? I will make a few enquiries and, hopefully, update this blog post at a later date.

The Church display case, with the witch’s spell box.

The witch’s spell box is displayed in the Merchant Lairds Gallery, which deal mostly with the 18th century. The reason that it is displayed in the church section is because it was the responsibility of the church in the early 17th century to root out witchcraft and to bring witches to trial. Around 72 people were tried for witchcraft in Orkney, although recent research puts the figure at 80. Of the 72 on record only nine of them were male. They were mostly poor women living on the outskirts of society. Some traded on their neighbours fear and superstitions in order to get offerings of food, but folk magic was common in those days and practiced by everyone. Rituals had to be gone through for protection against evil or bad luck. In the same gallery is a glazed, earthenware bottle, known as a ‘bellarmine’, which was found buried under the floor of a house in Rousay and was most likely a ‘witches bottle’, used as a protection from evil. To this day people all over the country still throw salt over their left shoulder if they spill it and statements like “I’ve been lucky so far” is followed by “touch wood” and the physical act of touching something made of wood. Walking under ladders and Friday the 13th are still thought of as unlucky.

The Merchant Lairds Gallery.
St Magnus Cathedral.

St Magnus Cathedral is unique as being a cathedral with its own dungeon. A cell known as ‘Marwick’s Hole’ is at the south crossing. Originally the opening that we see today was a window, but an extension to the crossing blocked it up. It is a bottle dungeon, with an arched floor, like the bottom of a champagne bottle. This was where those accused of witchcraft were held before their trial and execution.

The illuminated window opening on the left is Marwick’s Hole, where witches awaiting trial and execution were held. It would have been blocked up during the 17th century, so totally pitch-black and with a jagged, uneven floor. It would have been a nightmare place to be held during the nightmare of your trail and potential fate.

In 2019 a memorial to the Orkney ‘witches’ was placed at the Gallow Ha’ in Kirkwall, now a traffic island at the head of the Clay Loan. This site, as the old name suggests, was the site of public executions, which included the Orkney ‘witches’. The memorial was the work of Dr Ragnhild Ljosland and Helen Woodford-Dean, who brought together local heritage, church and community groups to create a permanent memorial to those who were killed. To learn more I have attached this link.

Photographs by Tom and Rhonda Muir.