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Issue 24 - Festival of fire

Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Festival of fire

The Up Helly Aa Festival makes for one of the most visually stunning events on the planet. Maggie Stanfield went along

What on earth is this? I have watched aghast the fire-throwing delinquents setting ablaze a beautiful and elaborately decorated Viking longship, and gazed in awe as several hundred pyromaniacs torched Lerwick as crowds of spectators cheered them on.

What has the world come to when the far northern tip of Scotland is alight with such criminal activity? You certainly wouldn’t see this kind of thing in Edinburgh.

Those of you familiar with the Up Helly Aa festival, held on the last Tuesday of January each year (Old Yule) in Shetland’s main town of Lerwick, will have recognised this odd scenario, but for this Irish blow-in, it was a bizarre juxtaposition of Vikings, 19th century Guizers, Jarls and Skekklers (the early Guizers) alongside 1950s Kirk tea dances that had opened their doors to crowds of students on Rag day.

On Up Helly Aa morning, a 10-foot high, elaborately decorated proclamation, ‘The Bill,’ is placed at the Market Cross in central Lerwick.

It’s a topical blend of local humour, digs at the establishment, gossip and ancient rites, and it gives the Guizer Jarl the freedom of the town for the day.

Next the Jarl Squad, with Guizer Jarl, Peter Fraser for 2005, at the helm makes its impressive public appearance. Fifty or so men of all ages have spent most of the previous year secretly assembling their arrays of crushed royal blue velvet, deer hides, ravens’ wings and sheepskin. The Guizer decides upon his squad’s colours. There’s no democracy here – oh, and no women either.

The spend each year by the Guizer Jarl on his own costume can be in the range of a couple of thousand pounds. This is one big event in a man’s life, and it’s one that many – maybe most – young Shetlander males aspire to.

There’s a hard to define prestige attached to this colourful annual ritual. It is very deeply rooted into the local psyche. You will be tolerated, even welcomed, as a visitor, but you will not forget that you are just that: a spectator, not a participant.

That’s no bad thing. Communities should be able to enjoy their traditional celebrations and festivals without feeling that they are being usurped by a demanding tourist clientele. That is not to say tourists are unwelcome – only that they do not have an automatic right to take over.

The opportunity to snatch a glimpse of genuine community spirit at work; of an event that is so clearly valued and enjoyed by Shetlanders, is rare if not actually unique these days.

Many traditional festivals have lost their local spirit under a perceived pressure to perform an agenda that seems more matched to short-term visitors than residents proud of their cultural background. Within a small island community, the ties that bind people are tight and as close-knit as a Shetland sweater.

Where larger and more cosmopolitan cities like Edinburgh can manage to preserve tradition alongside a constant and very welcome rush of visitors, Shetland has a fragility around not only its coastline but its very survival and it needs to be pro-actively protected.

Back at the main event, I fear some Shetlanders of pubescent years may suffer a gender crisis when they don the appropriate Up Helly Aa apparel. Certainly, when you see what those 12 year old boys become after six or seven years of participation, you have to ask whether perhaps restoration queens, disco queens, nurses, inflatable dolls and pirouetting pirates may be scarring these lads for life.

As for the hyper-inflated, hip-tailed and fleeceblanketed hippos, I cannot imagine what they will become as adults.

This is the great mustering of all the squads, now equipped with the six-foot fire torches that have taken months to make up.

A fabulous, starlit night, clear and mild and crucially, dry, was an unexpected bonus. 2004’s event was all but rained off. The 47 squads, some 900 people, move through Lerwick when the maroon is fired.

A disciplined and profoundly impressive mustering of the ranks sees the high, blazing torches of the squads in a contra-flow with the Jarl Squad, the galley and the Lerwick Brass Band moving forwards in between.

Dressed in disguises of all kinds, the Guizers are nothing if not picturesque, more reminiscent of a student rag day than a Viking war battalion. The secretly elected boss Jarl – the Guizer – is rather more sublime, kitted out in his bespoke velvet and complimentary accessories.

He spends perhaps £2,000 of his own money on his costume, and his personal squad must follow his chosen catwalk style and colours.

All the men in his squad must grow their beards in preparation and must be able to display authentic Shetlander ancestry.

The squads assemble in the playing field for the climax: with what seems like a bizarre disregard for the efforts of dedicated men over the entire preceding year, 900-odd people start throwing their fire torches into that spectacular galley. The Guizer got out first by the way, though he got back on a little later as the dry wood began to burn out.

Meanwhile there is much whooping and cheering and rendering of the Galley and Up Helly Aa songs followed up with The Norseman’s Home. The crowd of spectators, aged from six months to four score and 10, are enthusiastic to put it mildly. There will have been a few drams consumed by now and the ‘spirit’ of the evening is underway.

Now begins the business of ‘doing the halls.’ There are 13 of them, and each squad will give its own star turn in each.

Picture everything from pirouetting pirates and inflatable ladies of dubious repute to pink hippos and enormous salmon and you may begin to get a sense of the potential.

It’s a comic turn, somewhere between slapstick music hall and Parish fete.

The audiences are as eclectic as the performers, ranging from 12 year olds in shiny white track suits to elderly ladies in their Sunday best. There is no alcohol sold at any of the venues, so those who wish to imbibe bring their own and the proverbial blind eye is turned.

Part of that ingrained tradition involves each Guizer in a dram or so at every venue. Somehow, most stay upright until the early hours and ultimately enjoy a full breakfast at daybreak.

The last Wednesday in January tends to be somewhat quiet while people recover, though you may spot the occasional lost Guizer roaming home in a haze.

Not suffering too much, I go in search of some of Shetland’s alternative offerings. With many thanks to the Shetland Tourism, I have the chance to enjoy a truly unique guided tour.

Elma Johnson’s Island Trails are legendary. Elma does far more than provide an absorbing personal and cultural history of Shetland. She captivates her audience with her genuine commitment and empathy with the island she has lived in for her entire life, and she knows a lot about contemporary events as well as historic ones.

We head off to the north-west and Busta House. Here, Elma changes into character and becomes a veteran of the life of the 17th century Laird, Thomas Gifford, his wife Elizabeth and their 14 children.

Now a successful hotel, this characterful grand house hides the mystery of the disappearance of the Gifford boys. Elma brings to life the mixture of history and folklore, the legendary creatures that are Skelties and Trolls, telling their tales close to the sea and in their authentic environment, bringing them to fresh life.

And while you may not meet the ghost of Barbara Pittcairn – and some people say they have – the servant who was in fact lover to Gifford’s favoured son, James, you will certainly be aware of those who occupied Busta House in centuries past.

The entire male Shetland community bar the ponies is now at work for the 2006 Up Helly Aa. It’s well worth being there.

Up Helly Aa

Song Words by JJ Haldane Burgess
Music by Thomas Manson

From grand old Viking centuries Up Helly Aa has come, Then light the torch and form the march, and sound the rolling drum: And wake the mighty memories of heroes that are dumb; The waves are rolling on.

Grand old Vikings ruled upon the coean vast,
Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;
Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past:
We answer it “A-oi!”
Roll their glory down the ages,
Sons of warriors and sages,
When the fight for Freedom rages,
Be bold and strong as they!

Of yore, our fiery fathers sped upon the Viking Path;
Of your, their dreaded dragons braved the ocean in its wrath;
And we, their sons, are reaping now their glory’s aftermath;
The waves are rolling on.
In distant lands, their raven-flag flew like a blazing star,
And foreign foemen, trembling, heard their battle-cry afar’
And they thundered o’er the quaking earth, those mighty men of war;
The waves are rolling on.

On distant seas their dragon-prows went gleaming outward bound,
The storm-clouds were their banners, and their music ocean’s sound;
And we, their sons, go sailing still the wide earth round and round;
The waves are rolling on.

We are the sons of mighty sires, whose souls were staunch and strong’
We sweep upon our serried foes, the hosts of Hate and Wrong;
The glory of a grander Age has fired our battle-song;
The waves are rolling on.

Our galley is the people’s Right, the dragon of the free;
The Right that rising in its might, brings tyrants to their kneww;
The flag that flies above us is the Love of Liberty,
The waves are rolling on.