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The Origin of Football

In the Celtic religion the head was considered to hold an individual’s essence or soul. Head hunting was an essential by-product of Celtic warfare. Normally, an enemies head was treasured – except in those instances when the enemy was regarded as half human or bestial. Then – the enemies head was given to the children to use as they thought fit – normally resulting in what we would today call a ball game from which football and rugby derive.

This Celtic tradition of head veneration is still to be found in the small Scottish Borders town of Jedburgh – where an image of an Englishman’s head is kicked about and fought over in the yearly ‘‘Fastern Eve HandBa'’ festival.

Celtic Head hunting
Jedburgh – A last bastion of Celtic Head Veneration
World’s oldest football? – Fit for a Queen

Celtic Head hunting

"Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world." - Paul Jacobsthal, Early Celtic Art.

The Celtic cult of the severed head is documented not only in the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tène carvings, but in the surviving Celtic mythology, which is full of stories of the severed heads of heroes and the saints who carry their decapitated heads, right down to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who picks up his own severed head after Gawain has struck it off, just as St. Denis carried his head to the top of Montmartre. Separated from the mundane body, although still alive, the animated head acquires the ability to see into the mythic realm.

Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st century History had this to say about Celtic head-hunting: "They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and carry off as booty, while striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold; thus displaying what is only a barbarous kind of magnanimity, for it is not a sign of nobility to refrain from selling the proofs of one's valour. It is rather true that it is bestial to continue one's hostility against a slain fellow man."

The Celts also believed that if they attached the head of their enemy to a pole or a fence near their house, the head would start crying when the enemy was near.

The Celtic headhunters venerated the image of the severed head as a continuing source of spiritual power. If the head is the seat of the soul, possessing the severed head of an enemy, honorably reaped in battle, added prestige to any warrior's reputation. According to tradition the buried head of a god or hero named Bran the Blessed protected Britain from invasion across the English Channel.

Jedburgh – A last bastion of Celtic Head Veneration

Jedburgh has maintained its strong sense of identity and with it many traditions which have long since vanished elsewhere.

The ‘Fastern Eve HandBa'’ is played every February in the streets of the town. Popular throughout medieval Scotland, one gruesome explanation of the origin of the game is that, following a particularly bloody battle between the Scots and their Auld Enemy, the victorious Scots used the head of a fallen English general as a ball.

The Jedburgh version acquired its current format in the 1700's. A series of beribboned balls are thrown up at the Mercat Cross and two teams - the "Uppies" and "Doonies" - struggle to "hail" the ball at the Castle and the Jedwater at the Townfoot, respectively.

The boys play for a couple of hours before the men take over and it is usual for hundreds to participate. The traditions involved are complicated and strictly observed and only the players are experts on the rules.

Various kings and Town Councils have tried to stop the HandBa' but the game has only been missed once, when the HandBa' coincided with Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901. 

Recently – there has been approaches made both to the Lothian & Borders Police and Scottish Borders Council to outlaw this practice (‘Fastern Eve HandBa'’) upon the grounds of racial prejudice. It is understood such approaches have not only been ignored but members of the local Jedburgh police have suggested that ‘more the pity, its not a fresh English head in use’.

World’s oldest football? – fit for a Queen

A little-known fact about Mary, Queen of Scots was that she enjoyed sport. Mary would swing a golf club or tennis racket from time to time and she was a spectator at sporting competitions. But did she also play football – Scotland's national sport?

During an excavation project inside Stirling Castle in the mid-1970s, workers came upon a small round object tucked behind the thick oak-panelled walls of the bed chamber once used by Mary. What they found was a leather ball, slightly larger than a softball. But it was not just any ball.

The oldest football in the worldThis little grey orb has been determined to be the oldest football in the world - dating back to the mid-16th century and signifying the earliest known reference to the sport and royalty. While horse racing has long been known as the Sport of Kings, perhaps football was once the Sport of Queens.

Artefacts recovered from historic sites – such as Stirling Castle – often eventually end up in the nearest museum. In this case, the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum became the proud owner of this mystery ball where it sat hidden away in a storage vault for nearly 20 years.

 On a visit to the gallery, a member of the National Museums of Scotland noticed the ball - collecting dust in storage - and thought it might have some intrinsic value. Indeed it did.

After having it examined by historical experts, the ball was confirmed to be from the period between 1540 and 1570, the same time the wood panelling was installed in the bed chamber and in sync with Mary's reign as Queen. The ball, dated to be at least 436 years old, is clearly one of the greatest finds in Stirling's recent history.

I didn't realise that people would go bonkers over the football. It was just a ball – originally. But it's extremely rare. - Michael McGinnes

News of the discovery first appeared in 1999, shortly before the ball was put on display. A junior reporter for a local newspaper wrote a feature article about the find and within a day the national media were on the museum's doorsteps wanting a look for themselves, recalls Michael McGinnes.

A comparative view of a regulation football next to the ancient variety.The well-crafted ball has stood up to a pretty good beating. A cricket ball is at its centre and it is housed within a pig's bladder to allow for inflation; this is known as a bladder ball. The cover for the ball is made of thick leather and stitched from the inside to make for a smoother bounce and roll. However, the surface now includes stitching following necessary repairs. Size comparison on right.

Historians believe the ball was likely used between soldiers and staff in the castle courtyard in an activity more closely resembling handball than football. But how do we know for sure that this was a ball used by the Queen? Well, we don't.

"We would have to do MRI scans, X-rays, testing the materials to understand the surface," says McGinnes. "That would cost thousands of pounds and we just don't have that kind of money."
Information on the Queen's sporting life is a bit lacking. Historians believe Mary, far from a regular participant, played tennis at least once at Falkland Palace, moving about in only her breeches to avoid tripping over her dress. And there is evidence that she swung a golf club or two on the Scottish links. So it should not be too surprising to learn the the Queen liked a bit of footie.

But how can we explain hiding the ball behind a thick oak wall? One theory offered by McGinnes involves, of all things, witchcraft.

Fast fact
The football is on display at The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum for a few more weeks before it goes on tour.

Centuries ago it was common to hide a personal possession in the home. The item could be a locket, a ribbon, or even something like a football. If you believe in witchcraft and all things mysterious, then the thinking goes evils spirits would be attracted to the personal object while keeping the individual out of harm's way. The Stewart family, Mary included, were like many people at the time, a respectful believer in these superstitions.

In truth, we'll probably never know how the ball got there. To be sure, there wouldn't have been a ball in the Queen's chamber without Mary coming in contact with the object. No-one else would have been permitted in the room, at least not without risking life and limb.
Will Springer

See also:

Football or Soccer
Scottish Football Association
Scottish Sport
Scottish Rugby