English head that started 500-year tradition

Jed Hand Ba'. Boys ba'
Jed Hand Ba'. Boys ba'

Jedburgh’s ba’ game enjoyed a bit of je ne sais quoi this year, with a film crew from the TV station France 3 visiting, writes Sandy Neil.

The reporters were joined by a French anthropologist, Françoise Decloquement, here to study the Jed game, and by fans of a hand ball variant played in Picardy in northern France.

“It is exactly the same game we have in our village of Tricot in Picardy,” explained Françoise, an expert on French traditional games.

“There is maybe a connection with Jedburgh: King David I, who founded Jedburgh Abbey, introduced friars from Beauvais, which is near our game in Picardy, and where they still play their own hand ball.”

Hugh Hornby, author of Uppies and Downies, a book about hand ba’ games in Britain, says: “The story goes that in 1548 a party of Scots recaptured Ferniehurst Castle – the family seat of Sir John Kerr, a mile south of Jedburgh – during the occupation of the area by the Earl of Hertford’s army.

“One of the Scots recognized an English officer who had raped his daughter, and decapitated him. The officer’s head was then used as a ball in a celebratory kickabout. The legend suggests that the streamers traditionally attached to Border balls represent the Englishman’s flowing mane.

“For some 300 years, the game has weathered every challenge to its survival. In only one year, 1901, was it not played because the day of the game coincided with the funeral of Queen Victoria.

“A ba’ painted black and decked with black ribbons was ceremonially thrown up in the Market Place as a way of showing respect, yet continuing the tradition.”

A town council ban in 1849 during a cholera outbreak was ignored, and overturned by a High Court judge in Edinburgh, who ruled: “I, for one, should hesitate to encourage the abolition of an old and customary game, which from time immemorial has been enjoyed by the community.”

These words were still being quoted in 2001 during a ban at the height of the foot and mouth outbreak. Two token ba’s were played, maintaining the unbroken line of Jeddart hand ba’ games since 1704, and probably before.