December in Orkney


As the nights draw in on Orkney this December the lights glow from windows and twinkle from above the street. It has been hard to adjust to the sun setting long before I leave the office. But Orcadians seem to have this winter thing down. The island still bustles with life as community groups carry on from crafting to winter swimming.


This December in Orkney, I was lucky enough to attend not one but two concerts. The first filled Orphir Kirk with reels, jigs, Christmas carols and even bagpipes! The second was in the between the soaring pillars of St Magnus Cathedral where the Kirkwall Grammar School impressed me with their beautiful renditions of classic tunes in wind, string and by choir.


Tasteful Trees


Christmas tree spotting is always fun. December in Orkney however, is next level. Orphir Kirk is home to a highly creative display. The small village have an annual tree decorating tradition. Local community groups get a small tree to decorate. This year’s theme was books. In total, 25 trees formed a forest in the hall.

orphir kirk hall this december in orkney with small decorated trees lining up the middle


Another tree related tradition is are gifts from Norway. The  tradition began in the 1980s to recognise the historical ties and friendships between places. This year the tree in the St Magnus Cathedral was felled by axe by  Fjære Historical Society, in the district of Grimstad. This region in Norway is tied to Orkney through the vikings including the time of the famous St Magnus.  


Another tree has to brave the Orkney winds outside. It is a gift from Hordaland Fylkeskommune (Hordaland county government). These trees are greatly appreciated, especially as the island has so few native trees.


december in orkney means norwegian tree covered in blue lights stands on a night infront of St Magnus Cathedral

Up the Barricades

victoria street showing barricaded shops a tradition in December in orkney

As time flies and christmas approaches, a strange phenomenon occurs. Orcadians are accustomed and barely notice. However, as a foreigner it seemed to me like the island was anticipating a zombie hoard or similar apocalypse. Everyday as I wandered through the narrow streets of Kirkwall, more and more shops and houses became boarded up. What is going on?


My concern surprised my manager who explained they were Ba’ defences. Essential as the game gets very packed and heated!


What is the Ba’

The Ba’ is a unique Orkney tradition which is new to me. The more I hear about it the more complex it seems to get. A very inadequate explanation is that the Ba’ is a city wide game in which the island’s men battle to gain possession of the titular leather ba’ (ball). It gets more complicated when you learn of the teams – Uppies vs Doonies. I still don’t understand it to be honest. 

the ba' is a leather ball black and orange

The coveted Ba’

The game is played on Christmas Day and New Years day. For an onlooker it appears to be a violent scrum of yelling men. The “play” is indecipherable. After seeing all the increased defences and hearing that players wrap themselves in duct tape to avoid their clothes being ripped off… I’m sure it’s an exciting event.  


Sadly I’ll be missing out on the excitement this year as I return “sooth” for the holidays. However, I will be watching from the warmth of my family home on the livestream.

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