The Ba’ Green – Scotland’s ancient playing field

For a few years now I have been drawn into the field of etymology to try to understand the origin of place names which may, or may not, suggest a connection between physical locations and ball games like football. It has to be said that for centuries football and numerous other sports were widely played in all manner of locations. Examples of these vary from castle courtyards and town streets to coastal links with numerous accounts of village greens, haughs and meadows, even church yards and frozen rivers. Whilst all of these locations hosted sports, they are not connected by a permanent place name but simply by individual references to the events. One interesting place name, however, which did throw up some examples of football activity was ‘Ballgreen.’ To someone like me who was deliberately searching for evidence of ball games it seemed obvious at first glance as to the reason why these locations would be so named. But is it true? The question which needs to be answered is whether such connections are simply coincidence or whether there is indeed an early relationship between the activity and the location which resulted in the name being formed.

There are three main variants of the term. These are Ballgreen, Balgreen and Ba’green. However, other, less common, derivatives include, Ball-grene, Balgreene, Bagreen, Bawgreen, Balgrene, Balgrein, Balgreine, Balgreene, Boggreen and Baa Green. There are also some alternative place names with suggested connections to football activity such as Ba’ Muir, Ba’ Lea, Ba’ Hill and Ball Field. These are not as numerous or widespread. Ballgreen (including its variants) accounts for at least 35 known place names across a wide sweep of Lowland Scotland, running from Stranraer in the south west to Aberdeenshire in the north east and extending up as far as the Orkney Isles and the Fair Isle.

Now, some words of caution. There are alternative explanations to consider. Etymologists have suggested three possible explanations for the ballgreen name. The first two suggestions are derived from Scots Gaelic. Firstly, it has been suggested that it is a combination of ‘baile’ (a farm town or place) and ‘griain’ (gravel) which equates to ‘Baile na Griain’ (place of gravel). Secondly, combining ‘baile’ and ‘grèine’ (sun or sunny) to make ‘Baile na Grèine (sunny place). The third potential reason which is attributed to Lowland Scots, and which is of particular interest for this article, is a direct use of ‘ball’ and ‘green’ to mean a green where ball games are played.

For those who are interested in this particular discourse, there is an article on the Balgreen place name by Peter Drummond from the University of Glasgow in the Journal of Scottish Name Studies (Vol 12, 2018, Pp 89-95).

Another important trap to avoid is to attribute all references to ball or ba’ exclusively to football. Football is indeed referred to in numerous accounts as being a ba’ game but the term could also include a variety of other sports, most notably shinty, hand ball and, to a lesser extent, golf and bowls. As a wide variety of games and activities appear to have taken place in public spaces like greens, I have carefully chosen a generic title for the article to reflect this.

As a starting point then, there are several sites which have been linked to ball games. My own introduction to the subject started off when reading F.P. Magoun’s article on Scottish Popular Football as he refers to an incident from 1610 which took place near Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire. A complaint made by Sir James Douglas and his eldest son against William Kirkpatrick of Kirkmichael and several accomplices relates to a case of harassment and imprisonment. For ease of reading, I have translated the passages below which can otherwise be difficult to follow.  According to the complaint, Kirkmichael and his accomplices,

…almost continually since April 1610 have worn hagbuts and pistolets, under the pretext of the playing of a wood fute ball came to the land of the ball green of the lands of Campbell, not far distance from the gate of the place of Drumlanrig, and in a bragging manner made provocation to the complainers.”

A further statement from the case asserts that,

…Reidhouse was upon the Ball-grene, playing with him, Kirkmichael, the whole day, and so possibly could not be concealed as before in the day; and the pursuer is not able to affirm that they were concealed after the bonspiel broke up.

Image of Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire

Bonspiel refers to a gathering of people for sport and is most famously connected to curling but can, as in this case, be attributed to football. This example certainly appears to link a form of football to a ballgreen although the title of the green has not survived as a place name on later maps. A more enduring link can be found at the village of Maybole in Ayrshire. A town green can still be found bearing the name of Ballgreen and it has a connection stretching back several centuries. The earliest record that I have found to the name within the little town is in 1736 when it is referenced in receipts pertaining to the costs of the neighbouring schoolhouse. James Gray in his book, Maybole, Carrick’s Capital, states that,

Football is another favourite game which has been played by the young men in the town for generations. In the 18th century the schoolmaster in the small school at the foot of the Ballgreen complained bitterly about the damage caused to the building by the boys kicking balls against it when playing ‘Futeball’. (It would seem every game was played at the Ballgreen, even ‘gowfe’, before proper pitches and courses were formed, and there must have been great difficulty in separating the footballers from the bowlers and the archers from the golfers).

The Ballgreen of Maybole, South Ayrshire

Other examples lend support to a connection. For example, at Kirkcowan in Wigtownshire, Ballgreen House, is described in the Ordinance Survey Name Book, as being ‘A thatched & indifferent cottage situated upon a piece of ground which was formerly allotted for schoolboys (playground).’ Local side Tarff Rovers FC, dating from 1874 and, in their day, one of the oldest clubs in the area, was based in the vicinity at Balgreen Park. At Fossoway in Kinross the link to football is very evident, with the OS Name Book providing the following description,

BALL GREEN – ‘This name applies to a portion of a large field, situated between Cowden Knowe and Palace Brae. The game of Foot Ball used to be much practiced here, which gave rise to the name.’

At Biggar in Lanarkshire an account states that below the bridges… ‘is the ba’ green, supposed at one time to have been the public park of the town, where, among other pastimes, football was played…’ At Rendall on the mainland island of Orkney a long-established Yule day game is described in 1864…

At an early hour, the boys – those ardent patrons of the football – began to congregate on the Gorseness Ba’ Green, having no objections to a breathing before breakfast. No doubt the young fellows looked upon eating and drinking as only worthy of secondary considerations “on sic a day.” At and after noon the “lads o’ larger growth” and greater age came in groups to the scene of action. Old men and young men and men of middle age are then assembled. About one o’clock the friendly combatants had all arrived, and from this time till dusk the ba’ has a hard time of it. Old and young men equally interested and animated.

This account paints an enduring picture of a connection spanning generations between a game, a festival day and a physical space. Newspaper reports in the nineteenth century often refer to such games as being played ‘since time immemorial.’ In other parts of Scotland, the loss of traditions surrounding these festivals, including the accompanying ba’ games, may point to a reason as to why the original purpose of some of the greens were lost although as place names they remained visible on maps many years later. Large parts of Scotland experienced social and economic upheaval with mass migration and immigration over the course of the industrial revolution. More remote places like the Orkney Isles may have been able to shelter from the worst of these storms, holding onto many of their customs and traditions and, certainly in the case of the community at Rendall, retaining the true meaning of their ba’ green.

There is a wide body of evidence which suggests that ball games, much more than being a simple recreation, formed an important part of Scottish popular culture. Control over such games mattered and attempts were made to control the activity within a hierarchical structure. At St Andrews, the university tried to control the game by presenting footballs to their students for the festival of Carnisprevii (Fastern’s E’en). In 1537, when the Bedellus (an office bearer) removed a football attributed to the Dean which had been taken by the students, much consternation ensued, and the university reacted by putting a stop to the privilege of issuing the balls. In the Hammermen’s Craft in Perth, football was intricately linked to the organisation as a symbol of status. A fee for ‘football and banquet’ had to be paid before an ‘unfreeman’ (a workman) could be elevated to the rank of a master.  Apprentices were forbidden from going to the ‘Inch or any other place when the master takes any football of a brother of Craft’ and had to instead remain behind at the workplace. These examples place the activities of football and festival celebrations at the heart of communities and the control of these by those in authority was clearly important. The phrase ‘more than a game’ comes to mind here. Such a culture may have placed an importance on these parcels of land which could explain why some of the names endured long after their original use. There are certainly examples of land being specifically set aside. For example, at Panbride in Angus, in 1527 Robert Maul, Lord of Panmure,

…took pleasure in playing at the fut bale, and for that cause the muir of Bathil [Ba’hil?] was appointed, and during his days it was not castine [cultivated], but only reserved for that game…

In some cases, there is a placing of ‘the’ before the place name in old texts implying a purpose to the land. The account of 1610 refers to the field in question as ‘the ball green of the lands of Campbell.’ An account from 1632 mentions ‘the Balgreene of Mousbrigdyike’ near Lanark. As will be seen later, at Hamilton the reference is to ‘…a piece of unlaboured ground called of old ‘The Balgreene…’ At Ancrum a reference to the development of a family estate refers to an area of land ‘where the old balgreen was.’ The same letter, dating from 1632, extols the virtues of football ‘and these exercises which young men must have a place for’ and suggests clearing land for the development of an ‘vtter [outer] green for football.’ At Dalgain in Ayrshire there is a reference to ‘the green called the Balgreen.’

At Inverurie in Aberdeenshire John Davidson, writing in 1878 in his book, Inverurie and the Earldom of the Garioch, provides an interesting description of the old use of the ballgreen in the town…

A household of the immemorial Bainzies, with possibly one or two Fergus and Johnston neighbours, had their thatched abodes upon the line now occupied by the Town Hall, and stood many a summer afternoon, under their eaves, criticising the play going on among the leisurely burgesses upon the Ball Green, which came up to their doors, and in winter, looked out upon the skating rink of Powtate, and the snow-ball practise pretty sure to be exhibited when the school discharged its boisterous tenants.

Staying in Aberdeenshire there is a fascinating map dating from 1778 for the little town of Kincardine O’Neill. It relates to the location of markets in and around the town at the ‘Bartle Fair’ (a fair held on St Bartholomew’s Day). An explanatory note on the map refers to the Ballgreen…

The rest of the foot mercate [market] therefore stands at the back of the kirk on what is called the Ballgreen which is marked on the draught with the letter F and is shaded green on the sketch, and measures one Rood and thirty falls… The said Ballgreen is quite distinct from the Burying ground, as will be seen from the draught, the burying ground does not extend further than in a line with the south wall of the kirk and does not appear to be filled up by greaves [graves].

Plan of the town of Kincardine O’Neil & locations Of Bartlefair Markets, 1778
(Reproduced with the permission of the National Records of Scotland)

The location of the ballgreen at the heart of the village (between the kirk and the public house and close to the Market Cross) suggests that it played an important role at the heart of the community, being part of a market at the Bartle Fair and perhaps being a place to gather on other festival days as well as a place for recreation. There is evidence of ball games being played in and around ‘kirkyards’ dating back to the pre-reformation era.

A general observation on the various ball greens covered in this article is that they are all quite different – some were in, or close to, population centres while others were located in more remote locations. Some appear to have been large and open while others were smaller and more defined as a space. I have visited several of the locations, some of which have been linked to ball games and others which do not have supporting evidence. I have been struck by the fact that, by and large, they appear to be situated on relatively level areas of land. Even the site near Crawfordjohn which is remote and rural and situated amongst some hilly terrain looked to be a reasonably level ‘haugh’ flanked by two burns (streams). One site which raised an element of doubt in my mind, however, was a location near Lochwinnoch which was situated up a hillside. Only a small area of land which the farmstead (named Balgreen) sits on could be considered to be level.

Looking downhill from the road to the low lying ‘haugh’ of the Ba’ green near Crawfordjohn

The Ballgreen in my hometown of Hamilton has been of great interest to me although I never knew of its existence until just a few years ago. The survey map below is from 1855 and shows a relatively flat area of land at the edge of the town with a property occupying part of the site. The land is beside a prominent slope which in 1855 descended to the level of the ‘grand avenue’ (an ambitious avenue which was built to connect the Duke of Hamilton’s palace with his hunting lodge at Chatelherault).

Plan of the town of Hamilton & its environs from a survey by Thomas Boyd, circa 1855
(Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

The area has since been significantly built over, but the topography doesn’t appear to have changed all that much. This area of land is referred to in a charter signed by Anne, Duchess of Hamilton in 1659. The location of it is on the edge of the historic centre of the town. There is some interesting information in the following extract from the charter…

CHARTER by Anne Duchess of Hamilton…assigns whatsoever, of the ten shilling land of Haughhead, with houses, outbuildings, yards and pertinents, and the lands of Couperscroft, with a piece of unlaboured ground called of old “The Balgreene,” lying within the barony and parish of Hamilton, and sheriffdom of Lanark… and reserving also to the said Duchess’s farmers and tenants of Avonmylne, the use and benefit of the “schilling hill” and liberty to them to winnow grain on the said lands of Balgrein in all time coming according to use and wont…

Of interest, to its consideration as a field for recreation, are the facts that even by 1659 the name ‘Balgreene’ had been long established at this site, and the land was ‘unlaboured’ meaning that it had never been cultivated for crops. Given that the site was on a relatively level area of land, it would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination, based on other examples, to envisage a place for recreation for the local inhabitants as well as a location to ‘winnow grain.’

There certainly needs to be a lot more research into this particular subject and I am sure that there will be strongly held alternative views on the origins of these place names but hopefully this article  at least serves to make a contribution towards the wider debate and highlights evidence that a fair number of these Ba’ greens had a role as playing fields for local communities.

4 thoughts on “The Ba’ Green – Scotland’s ancient playing field”

  1. Hi John Tam Miller here from Jethart Ba’ game Jedburgh
    Just wanted to ask if you had any info on the Coldstream Ba’ ‘ Green and Game .
    Wark history page claims reference as easy as 1314 !
    Wee bit o Ba’ Game history for you today .
    Coldstream Ba’ Green
    Near coldstream ,On the Banks of the River Tweed a Small area of land on the border between Scotland and England sit the Ba’ Green .
    once a year The villagers of Coldstream and Wark played the Ba’ and the winner got to “own” the Ba’ green for the following year .
    So in a strange Quirk the Border between Scotland and England could move every year !
    Check out the video explanation .
    If anyone has any information of this game please get in touch thanks


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