The Wrigley Sisters Share Cultural Traditions of Orkney Islands

Aug 19, 2016

The special focus of this year’s Milwaukee Irish Fest is the Celtic World Showcase. Bands from Scotland, Ireland, The Isle of Man, Wales, the US and Canada are keeping their Celtic traditions alive while pushing their musical boundaries.

The Orkney Islands are part of Scotland, but with a history that includes time as part of Denmark, they have their own distinct traditions. And in the midst of that tradition are the Wrigley Sisters.

Jennifer and Hazel, a fiddler and guitarist, are the proprietors of a coffee shop and music store, and de facto ambassadors to their world from their home island. Their songs are a representation of the Orkney style of music, and make references to cultural practices unique to their home, like an annual game called Ba'. It's played on Christmas and New Years, by men and boys. 

"They did actually have a women's Ba' once, many years ago. But they had to ban it because it was too violent," Jennifer explains. "So it's just the men that play now." 

"There's the Uppies and the Doonies, they're called. And basically, you have to get the Ba' from one end of the town to the other end of the town, depending on whether you're an Uppie or a Doonie," she says. "It's all to do with whether you were born up the gates or down the gates, or whether you first came to Orkney on the boat or if you first came to Orkney on the plane." 

The ba' itself is actually the ball used to play the game. According to the Wrigley Sisters, it's a large leather ball akin to a rugby ball. The game has been known to go through homes, and is a bit of a blood sport, even when women aren't in the field. 

"Quite often they get quite badly injured in the Ba', and the front page of the local paper... they often have a picture of the most badly damaged body," says Jennifer.

The Ba' was even the subject of a documentary, which chronicles one year of the game played annually in the Orkney Islands. 

But if all goes well, at Irish Fest, things should be a bit more peaceful - even musical.

Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley, known as the Wrigley Sisters, are a duo from the Orkney Islands in Scotland and play Irish Fest this weekend.