Place Names of the Week - Playin da ba
Published: 06 January 2021
Playin da ba was once a popular pastime at Auld Christmas (5th/6th January). This informal game of football used a ball made from the inflated pig or cow bladder, covered with stitched panels of home-tanned hide or canvas. Whilst Lerwick recognised the 25th of December as Christmas from 1879, most rural areas continued to use the old calendar for many years and football games usually took place at Auld Christmas (5th/6th January).
In Norwick the boys playing da ba all winter, with Up-Helly-Aa marking the end of the winter sports. In Hillswick Auld Yule was observed on the 6th of January and reports describe how “After breakfast the young men turned out to the game of football, which kept them in amusement till dinnertime. In the evening the young people went to a ‘Rant’, which concluded the festivities of Old Christmas.”
In some areas, it was just an informal kick about, but sometimes there were rules, and an alternative name was the game of doors. Folk also talked about puttin da ba, with the game ending by puttin da ba into the sea. Games could last for several hours, carrying on until the men felt hungry and went home, and drams were consumed during periods of inactivity. On the sidelines younger boys and older men played handiba – kicking balls high into the air. Some folk practiced for years and managed to achieve great heights.
The pitch was a level piece of ground - da ba green or da links - often near the beach. In Cullivoe, it was at Da Villians, near the Sands of Breckon later moving to a park below Kirkwell, south of the graveyard. In Otterswick, the game was played on Da Carvel, the flat ground above the beach, whilst in Fetlar it was on the Tresta Links. In North Roe, about 60 men once played on the Mellins Rig – a flat area between Graveland and Flugarth.
In Wester Quarff the men gathered below Nethaburn on the flat part of the east meadow south side of the burn, whilst in Easter Quarff the game was played on Da Ringis just below Da Kirk. In Sandwick the pitch was on the Kirk Green, Da Mudoo was the ba green for Levenwick, whilst in Dunrossness it was at Da Springs. There were also some Christmas Day matches in the town. The Shetland Times of 4 Jan 1879 reported:
“It has been arranged to have a grand match on Tuesday first (Old Christmas Day) in the Club’s field adjoining the Institute. A number of ladies and gentlemen have expressed a wish to see the game, an opportunity of doing so will be open to visitors, who will obtain admission by the gate in Lovers Loan … We hope to see a good turn out of the “beauty and fashion” of Lerwick to enliven the scene and stimulate the players.”
In the 1890s the game was reportedly dying out in many parts of Shetland. The Shetland News noted that in North Yell football was not so popular on Yule day 1896, while the Fetlar correspondent noted that there was “not the usual turnout on the football field.” At Haroldswick it was observed that “out of doors sports such as football on Xmas and New Years Day seem to be declining here.” The following year football was played in Delting on both Old Christmas and Old New Year’s Day, but in 1898 the Weisdale correspondent reported sadly “kicking the ba’ seems to be a thing of the past”. Mr Peter Moar of Lerwick remembers the game of doors being played for the last time at Westing, Unst on old Christmas Day 1900/01. However, whilst abandoned in many parts, playing da ba continued in Wester Quarff right up until the First World War when the young men went away and there were not enough boys left to play. The game resumed for a few years after the war, but the custom soon died out. In North Yell, Tom Tulloch recalled “Dey wir still playin da ba on da Christmas day whan I wis a boy -- dat wis i da first a da 1920's.”
If you know where any ba greens were located or have stories about playin da ba, please share the details below or email email@example.com
Eileen Brooke-Freeman: Place names expert
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