Jedburgh folk square off in ancient HandBa’ contest

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By Karrie Gillett

HUNDREDS of residents in a Scottish town squared up to each other in a traditional ball gamed dating back 250 years.

The Jetburgh HandBa’ event sees the Uppies – people from the higher part of the Borders town – face those from the bottom half, the Doonies.

The objective of the game is to carry the leather ball – which is stuffed with moss and newspaper – to the right side of the town. For the Uppies, it is towards the castle and over the wall and for the Doonies the goal is the Jed water.

The ball is decorated with ribbons and thrown into the crowd from the Mercat Cross in the town centre. The men can hide the ball in their clothes or throw it for someone else in their team to run with.

But for most of the time during the game it was unclear where the ball was and a scrum of men moved along alleys, squashed up against shop windows.

Stores in the town prepared for the ancient sporting event by boarding up their windows and doors the night before.

Billy Gillies, an Uppie, has been taking part in the game for the past 55 years and said it was as popular as ever.

Mr Gillies, 66, said: “No one speaks about the game during the year, it just happens on the day. Nobody organises it as such, but people turn up in their hundreds.

“There are no rules and there are no tricks. No one tells anyone what to do; there are no instructions between the teams.

“There are some big men who take part but brute strength is not always the best tactic. It’s sometimes better to act quietly and smuggle the ball amongst your team mates.”

Team allegiance is decided by which part of the Borders town a man was born in – with the tradition dating back to a time when babies were born at home.

Now, team sides are determined by how you travel back to the town from the hospital. If you enter the bottom part you will inevitably become a Doonie.

Visitors and tourists can also take part and they decide their team by working out which direction they first entered the town.

Recently, the Borders town has taken its unique game abroad – with the Italian city of Verona inviting a team of 12 Jedburgh residents for a game.

Mr Gillies said: “We taught them all about HandBa’. There were 50 of them against us, but we still won.

“We will always play HandBa’ in Jedburgh – even in 1947 when there was six feet of snow on the ground we were out in force.

“It’s part of our town and part of our tradition. The schools all get a half-day for the boys to have their game before the men and it just carries down the generations.”

Legend states that the game originated from a bloody battle between the Scots and the English with the victorious Scots using the head of an English general as a ball.

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