Winning the Prize
The winter’s sun rises and attempts to break through the cold greys of snow clouds. It’s Christmas day and the world is still and silent as all the children open carefully wrapped up Christmas presents under Christmas trees. But in Orkney’s city, Kirkwall, Men and Boys are preparing themselves mentally and physically for the ba, a game, which turns boys to men in the space of a few hours.
The men in my family are also preparing themselves. They slip on their old ba clothes that have been sewn up and mended from previous years. They stick on their steel toe capped boots, which tell stories of the battles they’ve seen in their markings. The men tape up their boots so they won’t lose them in the melee. The women also prepare themselves, as they wrap up warm in coats, scarves, gloves, hats and boots to watch the game and support their men, their family and their team. They also carry supplies that the men might need during the game; water, bandages, inhalers, and… the list is endless.
Before this day there has been months of preparation made by the ba committee and the four ba makers. The ba committee organises barricades to be placed in front of doors and windows of buildings that are on the main streets that the ba could pass through. They also decide who donates the ba each year; this is the person who starts of the game by throwing the ba into the crowd of players that have gathered below the market cross. They try to make the game run as smoothly as possible. The committee also pay for the materials to make the orb.
A few months ago the makers started making the ba.
…My father calls me over to where he is sitting. He tells me to sit beside him and he lays out all the tools he needs to make the ba. He rolls out the leather and begins to draw the first panel; I watch eagerly as he cuts the panel out. He uses this as a template for the next seven panels. He then leaves the room after cutting the panels and a few minutes later returns with a kitchen sink basin full of warm water. I ask him, “Dad, what’s that for?” And he tells me that I would be soaking and softening the leather. He uses the first panel to demonstrate to me what I have to do. Once he finishes showing me I pick up the second panel and plunge it into the warm water. I bend and twist the leather to soften it. Once I finish with that one I hand it to my dad and he begins to sew the panels together. We continue to work like this until all eight panels have been softened and sewn together. My Dad made the two ends out of what was left of the leather. He turns the empty shell inside out sparking me in the face while doing so. I watch him, screw in the first end, which slowly pops in.
We leave the ba to dry out for a few days and when we return we find that the leather has completely dried out and is ready to pack. I sit in front of my dad and watch him shovel cork into the ball. It takes him a few minutes to stuff the ba. I then watch him force screwing the last end in- we finally hear a ‘pop’ and know that the end is in tight.
My Father leaves painting the ba for a couple of days after finishing making the ball. He lays out the different painting tools and begins to re-create the design that his father created and that our family have used for years. He splits each panel in half then splits the lower half and the upper half. Every other half panel is painted black the other halves are painted a dark brown - it’s the opposite way for the lower half. I watch him carefully paint each panel, making sure that he doesn’t paint over the line and onto the other half. Finally he has finished and leaves the paint to dry. And now it’s ready to be thrown up at the boy’s ba on Christmas day. I have sewn myself into the family tradition and the fabric of Kirkwall.
So here we are supporters and players walking up Victoria Street to Broad Street to meet our foes: it’s between the water and the wall. The supporters scatter around the edges of Broad Street and the players greet each other as they cross over to get ready to push the ba up or doon.
The bells of the St. Magnus Cathedral ring out loud indicating that the ba game has begun. There is a moment of pure silence between the players and the supporters. The thrower slowly raises his arms with the ba directly above his head. There is a gasp from the crowd as they watch the ba vanish into the mess of players.
There is an almighty gasp from the supporters. The anticipation rises as the orb is thrown into the crowd below. There is an almighty roar from the men. As they start linking together and pushing for their sides. It’s between the water and the wall and we as spectators must stand in the icy cold wind and wait for our boys to bring the ba home.