Friday, 20 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #17

'Amid shouts and yells in the darkness of Christmas Eve, the youths and men dragged north or south, as Fate decided, the 'Yule Log'

George Mackay Brown, Under Brinkie's Brae

Although we have kept insisting that 'Orkney Has Trees' during this advent, it has become increasingly clear that, for a large number of years, the trees in Orkney were very few and far between and mainly cultivated in sheltered gardens or around big estates.

This is why the Stromness Christmas Eve tradition of a tug-of-war with the Yule Tree so exasperated the town council and those residents who had trees in their garden.

The Yule tree, or Yule log competition is similar to Kirkwall's Christmas and New Year Ba' games. Both involve a sweaty, wrestle through their respective streets with each town divided into two teams. In Kirkwall, Uppies compete with Doonies for control of the ba', whereas Stromnessians are divided into Northenders and Southenders. The two games have also necessitated the barricading of local businesses and co-operation from local authorities.

The best history of the game that we could find was in John Robertson's Uppies and Doonies which suggests that the game may have began before the late 1890s. The earliest mention Robertson found of the game was in 1907. Presumably, it was this report in the edition of The Orcadian dated 28th December 1907 (As you can see below, Stromness once also had their own Ba' games.):

A tree was chosen each year and chains or ropes were attached to either end to enable players to grab on. What could be the problem with this piece of light-hearted, community-binding fun? The answer is limited resources. As previously discussed, trees did not have much chance of making it to maturity in Orkney if they were not protected and encouraged which meant that many of the trees used in the yule-tied tug-of-war belonged to people.

Most of the trees were apparently stolen from gardens and Robertson tells of minister James Craigie, sitting up most of the night with his precious tree in order to keep it safe. He failed. Town youths manage to slip in anyway and cut the tree down. Rev. Craigie was very cross.

Eventually, in January 1933, the town council decided that enough was enough and that too much damage was being done to private properties. A restriction was placed upon the pinching of trees.

Orkney Archive Ref: S1/6 dated 9th January 1933

In 1935, this printed notice was displayed in the town:

Courtesy of Stromness Museum
These restrictions did dampen enthusiasm somewhat and the Orcadian of the 30th of December 1937 reported that 'A requisition was made for Yule Tree and we understand a tree was obtained in a legal enough manner, but any attempt to pull it through the street surely fizzled out, for none made its appearance so far as we know.'

Attempts were made during the next decade or so to resurrect this Christmas tradition but, along with the Stromness ba' game, it eventually fell into obscurity.

Until 2017! Read here about the very popular return of the Stromness Yule Log which attracted over 200 participants and huge crowds:

Information taken from:

Uppies and Doonies by John Robertson
Stromness, A History by Bryce Wilson
History of Stromness 1900-1972 by James Troup
Editions of the Orcadian as mentioned.


  1. Wow, that was a big crowd in 2017! Are they still having the log pull?

    1. Yes, they are still having the log pull. They have moved the starting position this year to the old Commercial Hotel, as it is more central.

  2. Cool! I Hope it went well. (I didn't check the "notify me" box, and only just saw your reply).


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