Books | For centuries, life has had its uppies and downies

The former curator of the National Football Museum in Preston, in George Plimpton style, has participated in many scrums himself, sometimes drawn into the fray as a bystander—he joined in at Denholm, another Scottish Border town, this season. The games share common features, but, as Hornby writes, each possesses its own character, with different ritualistic elements and peculiarities in shape and style of ball, modes of hailing (scoring), terrain and tactics.

Although in a few cases individuals compete for themselves, most of the time players are grouped onto two sides: Uppies or Downies (with multiple variations in name), town or country, married or single. In harbor villages, such as in Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, the Uppie represents the part of town “up” from the harbor. In river towns, such as Jedburgh, Uppies come from the upstream section of the prevailing water feature, with accommodation made in modern times for inequalities in population or the establishment of regional hospitals—meaning that locals tend to be born in the same place. (“I was born in Jedburgh as an Uppie and will die an Uppie,” Miller proclaims.) Unlike association football, teams must score in their own goals, whether by touching the ball to a stone plinth, rolling the ball across a road or carrying the ball across a boundary: “The balls are the spoils of war,” writes Hornby, “to be brought home in triumph.”

In Derby, one of the best-known festival contests—now extinct—paired neighboring parish churches from St. Peter’s and All Saints’. The rivalry persists in that local rivalries throughout the football world are called derby matches.

In discussing the prehistory of festival games, Hornby marches back to the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought the Shrove Tuesday (Scot., Fastern’s E’en) custom to the British Isles. Shrove Tuesday, in fact, would become known as “Football Day” in places across Britain. Literary references to ball games begin appearing as early as 1174. William Fitzstephen, a Canterbury monk, alludes in a description of everyday life in London to youth who go “to the fields for the famous game of ball.” The word “football” first appears in 1314. London’s mayor already had acquired a negative impression of the sport—he refers to “certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public,” part of a tradition of suppression by church and polity.

Miller of Jedburgh scores a “half-hail” in the 2004 ba’ game by splitting one of the balls open on the cauld, or dam, of the Jed Water.

That early references to football often feature as part of ecclesial or municipal efforts to ban the game may offer a skewed portrayal of the contests as violent infringements of the peace. Yet the push and pull between enthusiasts and Puritan or Victorian-era repressors continues through the ages. In King Lear, the steward Oswald objects to being struck for his insolence, but himself is reprimanded as a “base football player.” Critic Ralph Berry remarks that the game already had come to be associated with down-market pursuits, “a proletarian pastime linked with proletarian values.”

The research of Hornby and other historians into the background of codified football forms offers a new historical model for the genesis, in 1863, of association football as a game bound by rules and a confined playing space. That rugby, codified as the Rugby Football Union in 1871, and soccer evolved directly from the primitive mass games has been eschewed. Adrian Harvey writes that football, meaning a kicking game contested between teams of equal numbers, “is a much older game than the Shrove-variety.” (See Matthew Concanen the Elder‘s canto A Match at Football for an account of a six-a-side game in Dublin in the early 18th century.)

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