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

Review of Hugh Hornby, Uppies and Downies: The Extraordinary Football Games of Britain, ed. Simon Inglis, Played in Britain (London: English Heritage, 2008). Pp. 188, bibliography, calendar of games, illustrations, maps. £16.99 (paper). ISBN 978-1-9056246-4-5.

Modern football match reports, following accepted journalistic practice, place emphasis on the final score. Try as we might in interviews with participants and by accessing online newspaper accounts of the Feb 14 Jethart (Jedburgh) Ba’ Game in Scotland—the annual revival of a mass-participation football match with several centuries’ provenance—we could not discover, with absolute certainty, who won.

British Pathé newsreels offered valuable sources for Hornby’s accounts of Shrovetide games. Pathé cameras filmed the Alnwick, Northumberland, game as early as 1922, and the film from this 1936 edition survived a cameraman’s misfortune. According to Hornby’s research, the photographer became involved in the mêlée and picked himself up “a sadder and wiser man.” (

Hugh Hornby, author of the comprehensive account of Britain’s 15 surviving festival football games (see schedule), was busy signing books, but says that the Uppies may have prevailed “by an odd hail.” Tam Miller, who started participating years ago in a youth version of the Jedburgh Candlemas game, said he had to check a local newspaper for results in Jedburgh and in games in nearby Scottish Border towns, Hobkirk and Ancrum. But he does not name the victors, suggesting that participation matters more than outcome.


Hornby advocates on behalf of these distinctive contests, grouped broadly under the heading “folk football” or “Shrovetide football.” In the book’s conclusion he suggests adding a bank holiday to mark Shrove Tuesday and to help revive interest in the mass-participation football forms. And following the mission of the Played in Britain series, which in past volumes has treated Britain’s swimming centers and the sporting edifices of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, Hornby wants to memorialize the sites of the more than 80 such games now extinct.

“I’ve been full-time on the trail of these elusive games for about two, three years,” Hornby says in a Feb 21 podcast. “I’ve spent many cold hours in fields and on the streets following these games, but I have to say I don’t regret any of that time. It’s endlessly fascinating, and they’re all quite different in their own way.”

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.)

Hornby distinguishes among various football traditions, characterized by the frequency of play: “Obviously the Uppies and Downies games are annual events. At the other end of the spectrum you would have the daily, casual kickabout in the schoolyard or in the street predominantly by younger boys. To some extent in between you will have weekly play perhaps in the chuchyard or in a field next to a churchyard, between younger men within each community. In effect that is the beginning of the weekly fixture list which is the staple of modern sport.” Eric Midwinter in Parish to Planet writes that the annual games, due to their distinctiveness, are better known for having been commented on by chroniclers of the time:

Below that higher level of occasional celebratory action dwelt a lower, less considered but more imperative type of football. It scarcely registered on the radar of the literate scribes of the age because of its very ordinariness. This was the daily or weekly disportment of tiny groups of boys or young men who would randomly foregather for what later generations would call a kickabout.

More significant to historians is the range of behavior associated with the festival contests, “the ways in which people enjoy football, dressing up, singing, processing, drinking—the banter and the badinage that goes on around the games,” says Hornby. Folk traditions deserve credit for establishing the idea of major sporting events, such as an FA Cup final or Super Bowl, as time set apart from the norm. In concept, the idea meshes perfectly with Shrove Tuesday, or the Feast of Fools, and its inversion of regular procedures. Relationships and rule are subverted. Flag-waving, flambeaux-lighting, chanting and other small subversions in football stands worldwide, by sometimes unruly rooters from all lands, might reach back to the mass football traditions of Britain’s streets and pastures. Hornby says:

If you imagine a larger urban environment and several hundred players perhaps, it might be considered a threat to order and prosperity. But of course that’s the whole point about Carnival and Shrove Tuesday. It’s the one day in the year when the ordinary man and perhaps woman is allowed to act the fool, take over for 24 hours, on the clear understanding that that’s the one exception and that the following day, as Lent gets under way, things will return to normal and they’ll behave themselves.

Hornby has discovered references to other customs that date back further than previously believed. As early as the 15th century common ground was set aside for camp-ball, a sport featuring teams of equal numbers competing for defined time periods. “Goals were pitched at the distance of 150 or 200 yards from each other,” reads an 1823 description. “These were generally formed of the thrown off clothes of the competitors.” Hornby flags this as the first instance of using “jumpers for goalposts.”

Festival games, of course, begin with a ball, such as that of the Royal Shrovetide game in Ashbourne. The hand-painted cork-filled balls of Ashbourne—held here by former player Dave Mellor on 6 Feb 08—are pieces of art in their own right. (© Andy Savage |

Early football forms employed kicking and handling. Period lithographs and paintings (see the work by Carse below) show Uppies and Downies players kicking the ball, but, in Scotland especially, the handba’ variety gained ascendancy to keep a check on damages. That the games occur in public areas, in countryside and on roads, helps distinguish mass-participation football from the codified forms. No one has lined fields of play in festival football, although shopkeepers do board the windows. Rarely do referees adjudicate. Terraces with barriers to separate participant and watcher do not exist. Anyone wandering by can be swept up into the action. Hornby notes that those lacking zeal for the heat of the scrum—from which steam clouds billow upward in cold conditions—can contribute “at the back of the sway in pushing in the right direction.”

In an entertaining digression on the design blog StrangeHarvest, Sam Jacob, architecture editor of Contemporary magazine, theorizes that association football may have incorporated aspects of the festival games’ attitude toward space (“Folk Football: Landscape, Space, and Abstraction,” Feb 5).

Pitches have an extraordinary beauty that has evolved from chaotic vernacular origins. Somewhere in that minimalist arrangement of rectangles, circles and dots is a trace of the landscapes of folk football: centre circle as lake, penalty area as village gateway, and goal as church. This makes football—perhaps more than any other sport—a kind of essentialised urbanism. A far more totalizing spatial game than say Rugby or Cricket.

With technological advance, disputes over the right of way between festival players and traffic became another means of controlling the games. The Highway Act in 1835 gave local authorities license to fine football players who used public carriageways. Games did decline in the 1800s, although Harvey disputes the extent to which this happened. Hornby says the main factor, rather than the advent of spectator sport, was urbanization. Rural recreations did not transfer to the urban centers—Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool—and games in the far-flung outposts, such as the Shetland Islands, died out. Even tiny Fair Isle, home of the famous knitting tradition, contains a remnant Baa’ Green, although writer Malachy Tallack says little memory exists of traditional Yule Day scrambles.

Many factors have helped preserve the 15 matches that are still contested—ranging, on a map of Britain, from the Cornish hurling games on the southwest coast through the Midlands up to the Scottish Borders, and on to the robust Kirkwall contest in the north-lying Orkneys. Urbanization creates a problem, but, as Hornby points out, one nevertheless requires a critical mass of personnel:

There seems to be a greater chance of survival in a smaller community, because obviously the big-city games of this kind were known in London and Manchester and so on—they’ve all gone. It does seem from researching the book that the optimum size is actually what Jedburgh is, a few thousand people: probably between five [thousand] and ten thousand population. And a number of the surviving games happen to have a population of that amount. Ashbourne is the same, and St. Ives, Sedgefield and one or two other places. Only Workington in Cumbria is significantly bigger. It seems to me that you require a certain level of support for the number of people in a town to keep the games going without reaching a level where the game becomes too damaging to property and disruptive to traffic and therefore likely to be suppressed.

Enthusiasts for the annual sport, from various periods, have outmaneuvered attempts at prohibition partly due to knock-on effects of war. In the Scottish Borders, Hobkirk players could continue these romps during the Napoleonic period as a justifiable distraction from the sacrifices of conflict. In Jedburgh and other Roxburghshire villages, where tales of Reivering and defense from English incursion remain prominent in historical memory, the ba’ games celebrate strength, guile and a warrior spirit. Smuggling of the ball, sometimes aided by motorized means, is looked on with favor in Scotland. The use of subterfuge, Hornby says, along with the grappling in scrums, interpassing and cross-country pursuit, constitutes a legitimate tactic and demands a poker-faced player who won’t give away that the small moss-stuffed leather ball is squirreled away in his pocket. Players have integrated cell phones and text messaging, sometimes to call in reinforcements.

In Jedburgh, weekday traffic still courses through the city as the men’s game begins at 2 p.m., prefabricated plywood sections having already been affixed to downtown shop windows in preparation. On Feb 14 some 60 or 70 players, according to Hornby, were involved at various times in the Uppies and Doonies competition that dates at least to 1707. Even in 2001, when many festival games fell victim to the nationwide outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, two Jedburgh ba’s were thrown into ceremonial play. One first-time witness in 2008, Sue Gyford of the Southern Reporter, looked on bemused at the knot of players who struggled within a “15-minute stationary maul. It looked like a cross between a rugby scrum and the furtive, collaborative milking of a cow; only the occasional writhing of a Caterpillar boot or the twitch of a builder’s buttock revealing the sneaky grasping for control taking place beneath” (“You Can Take the Girl Out of Essex, but You Can’t Take the Ba’ Out of Jed,” Feb 21; see video).

Auctioned for £240,000 in 2006, “The Foot-ball Play” (1830) by Scottish Borders artist Alexander Carse, along with similar works, represents one of the first appearances in fine arts of a football match. (Bonhams Edinburgh)

Besides getting to know one’s neighbors in such intimacy, the Jedburgh game and others fuse generations. “Their understanding of which side people belong to is rooted from an early age,” Hornby says. Although the games connect to a mode of life long disappeared, groups of activists and the lone figure willing to make a symbolic gesture have ensured the safe passage of Uppies and Downies. The Save Our Cloffocks group of Workington, for instance, works to preserve the vast linked sporting tracts that allow the game to range along the meandering Beck, the “stream of a thousand smells.” Hornby recounts the extraordinary determination of Iain Heard in Ancrum, who for 22 years carried the ba’, often without company, from the Market Cross to the Uppie and Doonie hailing points until the game revived in 1997.

The inveterate chroniclers, to whom Hornby is heir, should also receive their due for having championed the cause and preserved this history of the hands-on variety.


See our review in the May 08 issue of When Saturday Comes.


Matthew Concanen the Elder, “A Match at Foot-Ball, &c. Canto II,” in A Match at Football: A Poem. In Three Cantos (Dublin: n.p., 1720), 20–24; Ralph Berry, “Down with Football,” Contemporary Review (October 2004): 229–34; Adrian Harvey, “What Football Was Not: The History of Shrove-Football,” chap. 1 in Football: The First Hundred Years. The Untold Story, Sport in the Global Society (London: Routledge, 2005), 1–17; Francis P. Magoun Jr., “Scottish Popular Football, 1424–1815,” The American Historical Review 37 (October 1931): 1–13; Eric Midwinter, Parish to Planet: How Football Came to Rule the World (Studley, England: Know the Score, 2007), 17–23; John Robertson, Uppies and Doonies: The Story of the Kirkwall Ba’ Game (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1997).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (5)

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  1. [...] six-a-side game rather than the frenzy associated with period folk football (see the review of Uppies and Downies). The excerpt below comes from “Canto II,” as the match gets under [...]

  2. Dave says:

    This looks like an excellent book. Is the author related to Nick Hornby?

  3. I did not ask this question, because I assume that, as curator of the National Football Museum, Hugh Hornby had heard it many, many times. He comes from Lancashire and supports Preston North End. If he is related to the Fever Pitch author, he did not get the Arsenal gene.

  4. [...] The first mention of “football,” according to Hugh Hornby in Uppies and Downies (see 12 Mar 08), occurs in a London mayoral proclamation from 1314—further in the past to Pepys than Pepys is to [...]

  5. ALYCE says:

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing in your rss feed and I’m hoping you write again very soon!

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