Peter Ross: We're having a ba'

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'THE rules of the Ba' game are simple," says Len Wyse. "There's nae rules." An amiable man with a neat white moustache, Wyse is a past provost of Jedburgh, a current councillor for the Borders town, and the proud owner of two horses and a dog named Bud. Yet before and above all that, he was and is an Uppie, a title conferred on him by virtue of his birth, in 1951, in the cottage hospital up behind the Castle Jail. "You get a pride in it," he says.

Jedburgh folk are either Uppies or Doonies, depending on where in the town they were born, and this geographical status decides the team for which they play in the Jethart Hand Ba' – a sporting occasion which has taken place here, once each year, for centuries. A small leather ball is thrown up on the site of the old Mercat Cross, and it is the task of the Uppies and Doonies to carry this back to their respective goal, known as a "hail". A distance of around one mile separates the two, and it can take an hour or more to score. After each hail, a new ball comes into play.

There is no upper limit on the numbers in each team, and the game is rough. Anyone taking momentary possession can expect to be battered into the street with a scrum of 40 or more burly men on top of them. After, say, ten minutes of being pressed to the pavement, they will emerge with a tomato-red face, two cauliflower ears and steam rising from their head as if they were a freshly prepared stew.

It's 11am on Thursday when I arrive at Len Wyse's house. He has eight of the balls lined up on a radiator, drying out the moss before the game. First there will be six balls played by the boys, he explains, and then up to 16 by the men. The number varies, depending on how many people want to sponsor a ball. Most pubs in town do so, offering a gallon of beer to whoever scores the hail. Other balls are donated to mark important personal occasions. One this year is the gift of a couple celebrating their golden wedding; another is from a man in memory of his murdered son. The Hand Ba' is a key moment in the emotional life of the town.

The balls, each 3 inches in diameter, are made by a local saddler. They are dark leather, each stuffed with moss from a nearby burn and a page from The Scotsman, and decorated with long, colourful ribbons which are stitched on by Wyse. The players can sometimes keep a ball if they score a hail, and these are cherished objects. "My great-grandfather got that one well over a hundred years ago," says Wyse, holding up a black and brittle orb.

At noon by the clock tower bell, the first ball of the day is thrown up by Andrew Nagle, a Doonie. The head boy at the local school is always given this honour. Nagle's grandfather, David Rose, did it back in 1945. Seven years later he scored a try in Great Britain's victory over France in the 1954 rugby league world cup final. "La Rose! La Rose!" they yelled in the Parc de Princes. "Guid yin, Nagle!" they yell now, as the 17-year-old secures the first hail of the day, running down the High Street with the ball and rolling it over the course of the culverted Skiprunning Burn.

Nagle is a tall, good-looking lad, and many of the spectating teenage girls, all skinny jeans and Cheryl Cole hair, seem particularly impressed by his triumph, to judge from the shrieking. There is definitely a slightly hysterical, peacockish, puppy-love aspect to the Ba' as played by the under-18s. When a boy gives a girl a ribbon from one of the balls, it's understood as a serious romantic gesture.

Though there is no rule preventing their participation, the women of Jedburgh show no obvious desire to play. "No," says 15-year-old Jade Thomson. "We just scream." This is a happy thing for the "auld heids" who hold tradition dear and fear an ugly and embarrassing public conflict of the sort experienced by nearby Hawick over its all-male Common Riding.

There are no signs of such insurrection here. The women seem happy to encourage their menfolk with tactical advice. "Gaun, Tom, push on son!" yells one proud mum. "Gie him a wedgie!"

In the Sue Ryder shop just off the Market Square, the manager Liz Robson peers out between the thick slats of wood which are supposed to protect her window from being smashed by the scrum. Every shop in town is covered up like this. "It's horrible when the sun goes down, and the mob are outside, smacking against the glass," she says.

Jedburgh is handsome, all rough old stone and crow-step gables. It is a place where the famous names of Scots history feel very present. Walking around, you pass the houses where Robert Burns, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary Queen of Scots spent time, the court where Sir Walter Scott practised law, the library opened by Andrew Carnegie.

Hand Ba', so physically engaged with these ancient streets, seems part of this living tradition. You can look at old photographs of games past, and the only thing that changes is the fashions. Bowler hats in one picture. Teddy boys in the next. Right up to today when players wear their work gear: hi-vis tabards, boiler suits, and 1950s-style blue jackets with "Tulloch Potatoes" written on the back where you might expect to see "Jets" or "Sharks".

These days, of course, most people are born outside of town, in the hospital in Galashiels, and their Uppie or Doonie status is decided by the direction from which they arrive in Jedburgh. The natural route is by the A68 from the north, which would make them a Doonie, but if the father is a die-hard Uppie then he will certainly go the long way round in order to ensure his child remains within the true faith.

And it is a faith. "The Ba's a religion to me," says Billie Gillies, a 66-year-old bricklayer – and Uppie. "Ah think aboot it every day. If you took the Ba' away frae me, ah'd have nuthin'."

It makes perfect sense that the women prefer not to play. While the boy's game is fast, Hand Ba' played by the adult men often descends into large piles of writhing bodies and limbs. It's hot and sore and stinking. "People are complaining about the fermers," says Wyse at one point. "They've no' changed efter work and it smells like sheep in there."

The men's game relies heavily on "smuggling" – hiding the ball inside your clothes, sauntering away from the scrum, perhaps feigning injury, and then going on to hail surreptitiously. It's even possible, though not in the spirit of the game, to smuggle the ball into a car boot or hand it to a passing motorbike. Everyone knows smuggling goes on though, so there are always lots of intimate body-searches going on round the fringes of the scrum. No crotch goes ungroped.

Gillies is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Jedburgh Hand Ba' – keen to pass on the mystical skills he has acquired in almost 60 years of play. At one point he is walking up the street with his arm round a young man. "The funny thing is that if the ba' likes you, it'll seem to come to you," he tells the lad. "Dinnae struggle and attract attention. Keep quiet if you want to be a Ba' player."

What's remarkable in these heavily regulated times is that the Hand Ba' continues without interference from the health and safety lobby. The police are nowhere to be seen and there are no paramedics standing by. It takes place on a date worked out by a complicated procedure involving Candlemas and the new moon, but is not advertised and there isn't an organising committee. No-one is in charge. The Ba' is a "happening" rather than an official event, and public liability insurance doesn't come into it.

Yet there is no doubt that this game can be dangerous. At one point an Uppie gets hold of the ball and makes a break for a patch of countryside. This involves crossing the A68. A lorry, travelling at some speed and sounding its horn, bears down upon a group of players. No-one is hurt, but it isn't long afterwards that an 18-year-old called Daniel Brown runs smack into the brick wall of an electricity substation, cutting his head open above his right eyebrow.

The game has violent roots, explained to me by Rod Sharp, an 81-year-old retired teacher. The story goes that in the mid-16th century, English forces occupying nearby Ferniehirst Castle were besieged by the Scots. "The English captain decided to surrender," says Sharp, "but the leader of the Jedburgh men, recognising him as the person who had ravished his wife and daughters, cut off his head, picked it up by the long hairs, and flung it over the castle walls." This is symbolised today by the ball and ribbon, and the Uppies score a hail by throwing it over the walls of the Castle Jail at the top of the High Street.

This year's Hand Ba' ends in the freezing darkness, shortly before nine, with the Doonies the victors by eight hails to seven, and the players repair to the pubs to collect their liquid winnings. Ronnie Notman, 51, a garage worker and proud but weary Uppie, rubs his hands together against the cold. "It's in the blood this, eh?"