We spent time over the Christmas and New Year period in Orkney with friends. We loved it but we didn’t love the getting there and back quite so much – a long train journey with several changes and a rail replacement bus tour of Edinburgh, then a 6-7 hour ferry crossing in each direction. Ferry trips on the North Sea can be “interesting” in winter, but we were quite lucky, just a 90 minute delay on the return crossing and not too much pitching and rolling.
On the plus side, all the time spent sitting around on trains and ferries meant I got quite a bit of knitting done. The grey and orange socks were completed.
Talking of rugby, one of the highlights of our trip was watching the Ba’, a rugger-like game with few rules played on the streets of Kirkwall on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Dozens of men from each end of town – the “Uppies” and the “Doonies” – try to get the ball to their respective goals by means of a scrum which often lasts for hours. All the shops, houses and other buildings have to be protected with stout wooden beams. On Christmas Day the Doonies finally triumphed by getting the ball into the harbour some seven hours after the whole thing started with a throw-in in front of the cathedral at noon.
This is clearly a highly tactical game as well as one of brute force and teamwork. Some men from each faction – often the older ones whose scrum days are perhaps over – could be seen giving hand signals and shouted instructions to indicate where the Ba’ (ball) was at any moment, because it spent 99% of its time under a heap of Orkney’s finest manhood.
Every now and again one team would prevail and the scrum would lurch in one or other direction for a few metres, with the watching crowd scattering out of the way. Believe me, you would not want to be caught in the path of the Ba’. An ambulance crew, complete with doctor, was in attendance throughout, and it’s apparently a rare event that doesn’t result in a fair few injuries.
The weather was kind during our visit to the islands, with only one day’s typical Orkney weather of strong winds and horizontal rain. We walked on deserted beaches…
… crossed a causeway at low tide to an islet, participated in a pagan solstice rite (like you do) in a stone circle, and visited the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness with its fine collection that includes several Barbara Hepworths and Ben Nicholsons. Last but not least, we visited one of my favourite Orcadian suppliers of sheepy products, the Woolshed, which opened specially for us. They had very little yarn – the 2019 shearing isn’t back from the spinners yet – but we came away with a hat, a hand-felted cafetiere cosy and some hand-dyed wool fibre. The latter was bought by our photography-mad friend because he fell in love with the colours and wants to photograph it.