Gi’e Us The Ba’! Hugh Maxwell recalls a sporting tradition in auld Ayrshire
The urgent shout of “gemme ba”could be heard above the frantic din of the huge crowd as the players took their positions for what was to be the final tussle. A quick flick of the wrist and the ball bounced off the castle wall and was followed by a long, stamina-sapping rally with all the players jostling for position;and suddenly the spectators gazed in awe as a superb swinging shot struck just above the boundary line and proved unreturnable. The crowd erupted with cheers and applause and shouts of victory as the contest had finally decided the new winners of the Galston Handball Challenge Cup. Within the town the oldest building is the fortified tower house called the Barr Castle and it was in front of here that the once thrilling game of handball was played in the broad alley at the foot of the ramparts. The origins of the game are vague and there is no official recorded date for when a ball was first hit against the castle’s wall:but at a time during the latter part of the 17th century, when the area was beginning to thrive with manufacturing industries,the game started to flourish as a local sport. John Wright,the town poet,waxed lyrical in his epic ‘The Retrospect’,published in 1828 ‘To Lockhart’s Tower now flocked we forth the prey, The wreck of ages,and the pride of song; Where many a gamble circled round the gray, Dark,feudal vestige,and its dells among; But o’er all sports,athletic,nimble,strong, Was handball pastime;young,mid-aged and old, As equals mingled,after practice long; And scarce a neighbouring village was so bold As struggle with our own,the sovereignty to hold.’ A note to this poem stated,‘Handball is,and has long been,a favourite amusement with the villagers of Galston, many of whom are
proficient in this pastime.’ John himself was an accomplished player and if worsted in a game, even by fair play, invariably knocked his opponents down or ‘had himself well buffeted for his audacity,’ according to one eye witness. The Galston Club was one of the first handball organisations in the land, while the scene of its exploits,the castle wall,measured 80ft by 40ft. Such athleticism was viewed as a suitable recreation for the warm summer evenings when the sun would illuminate what was colloquially known as ‘the Baur Ailley’in all its glory. After working all day at hand looms, weavers saw the game as providing much needed exercise and fresh air, while, for spectators,it quickly became a source of entertainment and gambling. The rules were simple. It was played between two teams of three players with each group having a head, a middle and a foot player. The first always stood to the left of centre and was ‘caurrie fisted’or left handed. The middle player held the centre and was ambidextrous,while the third player stood to the right and was right handed. A coin was tossed to decide the team that would start (called ‘hauns in’),while the other team would be called ‘hauns oot’;and the ball was then served by the centre player against the wall and his opponent was challenged with having to return it to the wall after only one bounce or ‘stot’on the ground. If they failed in this then they had lost a point: but if the serving team lost the point then the service changed to the opposing team who would then move to be nearest the wall. A long, sustained rally between players, which always appealed to the crowd, was known as a ‘kytle’,while the game itself was won by reaching 35 points. To mark the boundaries, a chalk line was drawn on the ground to the left and right of
Winners of the 1924 Handball Challenge Cup, namely George ‘Duke’ Murray, Tom Murray and James ‘Speeder’ Murray. (By permission of Robert Murray.)
the wall but there was no line to the rear. Along the castle wall itself ran a board about two feet above the ground with the aim being to strike the wall as close to this board as possible. If this was achieved,the shot was often unreturnable,becoming known as a ‘clocker’. When a team missed the wall with their return or even missed the ball itself or hit it out of bounds or on or below the board,a point was awarded to their opponents. The marker or veteran judge, usually a retired player,sat at the ‘head’of the alley and was responsible for deliberating over close decisions and for maintaining the score. The ball was made of hard,solid rubber and at its core was a small,round pebble. To strike it hard and straight in the intended direction,a player used the inside of his hand and a cupped palm. The ideal player required height and a long reach was a distinct advantage when picking up a fast running shot and gave power to a returning stroke. Strength in both hands,quick athleticism and agility combined with an evenness of temperament were all attributes; and if luck was also regularly present then a skilled player could go on to become a renowned and feared Champion of the Alley. A handball game in 1900. Smooth concrete covered the castle wall.
The preliminary for any big, important game involved the sweeping of the ground and this was where enthusiastic children were allowed to assist. This brushing was always aimed outwards in the direction of the road, while behind the castle the competitors would be limbering up and preparing for the challenge ahead. The distinctive Barr tree that stood at the corner of the east wall and a stone dyke characterised the playing area in the early days when the ball was often deliberately played at an angle against the wall so that it would rebound off these objects, proving impossible for opponents to return. One player who became adept at achieving this rebound was Jamie ‘Clockie’ Sharp who always aimed at a crevice in the dyke from which the ball would often bounce out at an unpredictable angle. This break predictably became known as ‘Clockie’s Hole’ and the crowd would erupt in laughter as opponents sprawled to retrieve such a volley that had gone ‘agee’. Jamie was a jaunty character adept at every dodge and was full of eccentricities and sarcastic wit. Merriment never ceased when he was on the turf. However, if he was defeated, a downcast
Jamie would often quickly disappear,head bent,over the dyke,heading in the direction of his granny’s door where her tub was always ready to receive his sweaty body. One novelty was a large sign on the wall which declared - ‘If Swearing,no playing!’ It was a reminder for players to conduct themselves properly. The annual inter-village contest between Newmilns and Galston was a regular feature and the former had a handy court in castle grounds behind a pub in the main street. Here the handloomers practised assiduously. They knew that,even if they proved unsuccessful in the notoriously difficult Barr alley,they could always turn the tables on their opponents when playing at home, with their intimate acquaintance of all the neuks and crannies in their own castle wall. The later years saw players wearing colours to distinguish themselves during important contests,the preferred style being a light,thin, sleeveless shirt, loose fitting trousers and soft shoes (in the early days players were barefoot and often sustained grazing injuries). Every Glasgow Fair in late July saw an influx of visitors to the town, giving the streets a thronging animation, while the natural amphitheatre of the alley was invariably
regularly filled by thousands excitedly viewing the games. However, these boisterous meetings slowly declined in popularity following the outbreak of the Second World War. Many young men, who would normally have been in local teams, were conscripted and thus not available:but,even before this,football was rapidly becoming the more popular sport. Spectators at the handball occasions dwindled and there was little money or fame left in the sport whose cups and trophies had once been actively subsidised by local businessmen. Today the game is just a fond memory for the older inhabitants who still happily recall past champions who thrilled with their athletic expertise and their own particular styles of baffling the opposition. The castle at least has now been restored and there is a small museum whose cataloguing of the town’s heritage includes a history of handball. The big crowds have long gone but it is still easy to picture local legends such as wily Jock Adam, the invincible Black Tott and the ever reliable Red Willie keenly contesting games of ‘haun’ba’at the Baur Ailley’of a balmy,bawling,summer evening. 15