Since the Borders lost its ba’ games in Peebles, Gala, Selkirk, Melrose, Hawick and perhaps twenty more villages, Jedburgh is the largest local town where an annual hand ba’ survives.
“Jedburgh is popular because it is still playing the original rough, tough game,” explains Hugh Hornby, a player of all Britain’s existing ba’ games, and author of a book on them, Uppies and Downies.
Four hand ba’ games compress into a week in the Borders during February – Bonchester Bridge, Jedburgh, Ancrum and Denholm – and in July the married and unmarried men of Duns engage in a contest during the summer festival.
The Jedburgh hand ba’, is played on the Thursday after Fastern’s E’en (Shrove Tuesday), between the Uppies (Toonheiders, born above the town’s Mercat Cross, and the Doonies (Toonfitters),born below it. The contest is divided into men’s and boys’ games.
To score, the two teams have to “hail” the ba’ over their opponent’s goal: the Doonies must lob it over Jedburgh Castle’s railings, and the Uppies must roll the ball across a road on the spot of the old bridge over the Skiprunning Burn. From where each ball is launched at the Mercat Cross, the distance to the two goals is, in the words of one veteran, “eeksie-peeksie” about half a mile either side.
A cash prize awaits the Uppie or Doonie who does hails, as one donor explains: “Whoever donates the ba’ can put what they want on it: that one’s for a diamond wedding with £60 on it for 60 years married.”
The prizes on this year’s 14 men’s balls ranged from £20 to a gallon of beer. “It’s a good afternoon – plenty o’ drink. That’s the main thing,” said one competitor.
Billy Gillies, 69, a player of 60 years who now shepherds the game, describes the ball: “It’s just a round leather ba’, a bit bigger than a cricket ba’. It’s stuffed wi’ hay, battered in, then sewn up. It’s been like that since time immemorial. It’s quite hard, you can’t quite get your hands right round it – you’ve got to be a big laddie to hold on to it.”
“There are no rules whatsoever,” Billy says, “except that you don’t do to somebody what you wouldn’t want done to you.”
One lad playing in the boys’ game added: “In the men’s ba’ you can play on the ground, but no the boys’ ba’.” There, he says, the only tactic is to run.
A veteran of the adults’ ba’ reveals the difference in tactics between the men and the boys: “If you’re fast, like a lot of they young boys, they can run with the ba’, but I’ve got to smuggle it. Hide it anywhere: up your sleeve, doon your trooser leg - I’m not going to tell you where I hide mines.” .
This means no one walking the street, no matter how innocently, escapes suspicion as a ba’ smuggler.
Another feature of the men’s game is the silent scrum on the street. “People are trying to move the ball from member of the same team to another,” Hugh says: “If you get down in it you can see the ball moving, and people hiding it in their clothing. If they’re lucky they can stand up and don’t get searched, and get away with it. There’s no doubt when you’re at the bottom of the scrum, you definitely feel it.”
However, one player of 14 years insists it’s “nae sore”.
Billy Gillies concluded: “In all, the Jed ba’ goes from strength to strength, and it’s thriving. The men had 17 balls, and the boys had eight. It just shows that people are supporting it by putting balls in.
“The boys’ ba’ has been unbelievable: there’s more people here playing the boys’ ba’ than I’ve ever seen. The men’s ba’ has improved out of all recognition over the past few years. Fostering the boys game 15 years ago is now proving the benefit for the men, which is the way that it should, so today has been tremendous.”
The final scores in the boys’ ba’ was Doonies 5, Uppies 2, and in the mens’ ba’ the Uppies were victorious with 8 hails to the Doonies’ 6.
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