|The Up Helly Aa flag flying over the town hall|
It looked as though it was going to rain, but I wasn’t worried. Up Helly Aa NEVER gets cancelled because of the weather. Only world wars have been able to stop it (and that was probably due only to the lack of men). It was postponed at the last minute for Winston Churchill’s funeral but no-one was very happy about that (and still aren’t if the lack of interest in his 50th anniversary was anything to go by). Far too many sandwiches went to waste and people who’d come up specially ended up missing it. So that’ll never happen again.
I wasn’t in any particular hurry as I knew the Jarl’s squad were getting breakfast and facial tattoos in Islesburgh Community Centre and I wouldn’t be allowed in. I’ve been able to pass myself off as a lot of things, but I don’t think even I’d pull off impersonating a large bearded Viking. After breakfast the squad were taking the galley down to the waterfront for an official photo session and then leaving it there for the rest of the day whilst they went around town visiting care homes, schools and the hospital. I thought the waterfront would be too crowded so instead waited near the town hall. Afterwards, when I saw how good the photos of the whole squad atop the galley looked, I wished I had gone myself. Instead, the first I saw of them was when they came marching up the road to the town hall, roaring and generally making a lot of noise. They did look rather magnificent.
|The Vikings are here!|
|Raven wings and a mighty beard|
So much care had been put into the costumes and weaponry: textiles, chainmail, carved, highly polished wood, intricately patterned metalwork, and of the course the Jarl’s helmet resplendent with its raven wings. Once they’d all gone into the town hall I went down to the harbour to look at the galley. This was equally magnificent. The level of detail equally intricate.
There were still quite a few people around and as I waited for a chance to take a people-free photo, I got chatting to the man who was looking after the galley. He told me his son will be Guizer Jarl next year and so this time next year he will be touring the care homes in full Viking dress rather than standing in a raincoat guarding the galley.
|Named after a penguin named after a Viking|
He was dismayed to hear I wouldn’t be going to any of the halls. The halls are a really important part of Up Helly Aa, but all are privately run. The festival is a really special time for Shetlanders. If islanders who have moved away are going to come home only once in the year, it will often be for Up Helly Aa. People I spoke to told me it’s more important and a bigger event than Christmas, Easter or birthdays. It’s easy to understand then why, although they’re happy for outsiders to watch the parade, the halls are private and for friends and family only. To have a load of tourists in your hall would be the equivalent of having a load of tourists come round to your house on Christmas Day morning to watch you open your presents. You probably don’t mind the tourists coming along to the carol concert or midnight mass, but there is a line you don’t want them to step over. I understood this and accepted that, as much as I would like to, I wouldn’t be going to any halls.
|Spot the penguin|
I should have known better. This is Shetland after all. People are friendly and rules are just there to, yeah, well, whatever. John told me his daughter-in-law (wife of next year’s Jarl) was running one of the halls and that when he got home he would ask her if there was a spare ticket for me. He took my mobile number so he could let me know. Just in case he called over some other people and got me the phone number of someone running a different hall, so I had a backup plan if his daughter-in-law didn’t have any tickets.
|Even the boats have beards|
I spent part of the afternoon wandering round town. The window displays in the shops all had an Up Helly Aa theme. Even Specsavers had joined in with a poster depicting a Viking squad hauling a fishing boat along to the burning place instead of their galley, unaware of the irate fisherman chasing them; the caption was, of course, ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’. As well as Vikings, there was quite a penguin theme. This was because the Guizer Jarl is known by the nickname ‘Penguin’. There was a penguin design painted onto the galley which was named Nils Olav after a penguin in Edinburgh zoo with the same name.
The Bill had been attached to the market cross earlier that morning. It’s a carefully hand-inscribed proclamation satirising local events and notable people from the past year. In red and black painted text it lampoons the discussion around school closures, the unreliability of the Northlink ferries and the controvesial Mareel arts centre. It took me several readings to understand most of it, but even though I try to keep up with Shetland news, there were still parts that were over my head.
|Crowding into the museum|
The Jarl’s squad was due at the museum in the late afternoon, so I made my way over in plenty of time. The entrance hall was already quite crowded with people waiting to see Vikings. A couple of guys were keeping everyone entertained with live music. The Jarl’s band arrived first and they squeezed in with their bulky instruments and got set up. Then the rest of the Vikings arrived. Before they came in I would have said it was impossible to fit seventy Vikings all in bulky costumes into the already crowded space. But fit they did. More and more of them pushed through the doors and spectators were crushed back to the walls. They could have shown rush hour commuters on London Underground a trick or two.
For their theme song, they had chosen Daydream Believer, albeit with a few word changes. As their voices reverberated around the hall, big grins on their faces, light glinting of their chain mail, swords and double-headed axes, I knew I’ll never be able to hear that song again without thinking of Vikings.
|Just 2 Vikings having a chat|
Following the sing-song everyone piled outside where the Vikings lit their torches for a TV interview. Dousing the fire in the harbour, they then did what all good Vikings do and drove off on their bus.
|The Junior Jarl’s galley|
Wandering back up to the town hall I was in time to see the Junior Jarl’s squad setting off on their parade. The schoolboys also have real torches and proudly set off marching, pulling their galley to the playing fields where they would burn it. It was just starting to rain, but didn’t manage more than a few drops before stopping again in plenty of time for the main parade.
|Schoolboys with a burning mission|
I went back to my van which I’d moved to Tesco car park so I wouldn’t have too far to walk at the end of the night. As I got my layers on ready to stand around for a few hours watching the main parade and galley burning my phone rang. Yes! I had a ticket. It’s the custom to dress up for the halls but as I hadn’t expected to go to one I didn’t have any posh clothes with me. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop me though. I put a slightly nicer top on over my thermals and considered myself ready.
By 7pm the streets were heaving. I think Shetland’s entire 22,000 strong population, along with several thousand visitors had all congregated on the same few streets. I’m not used to crowds in Shetland. All 48 squads take part in the main parade. As they are nearly all holding burning torches, not all of them are wearing their costumes (or disguises). If the outfit is likely to be flammable (or affected by the weather) they wear ordinary clothes on the march and change before starting their rounds of the halls. The torches are lit, the streetlights go out.
At 7.30pm a rocket is fired from the town hall and they’re off. As 1000 men wind their way round the route a ring of fire encircles the spectators. It’s dark, in the distance only the line of fire can be seen. Even when they are marching behind buildings, the sky is strangely lit up in shades of flickering oranges and reds like an all-encompassing sunset.
I had a great spot right at the kerbside. The smell of paraffin, the heat from the blazing torches, the singing and Viking yells, a thousand men marching past, flames flickering, everything seeming to move so quickly my eyes struggled to focus, let alone my camera. I felt like every one of my senses was being overloaded and maxed out. Still they marched. Still they yelled. Still the flames flared devouring the oxygen from the street.
Earlier John (the man guarding the galley) had pointed out that nowhere else could you give a thousand men a bottle of whisky each and not expect trouble. Here, they not only give them a bottle of whisky but a flaming torch and then plonk them down in the middle of this heady atmosphere. Trouble? Of course not. I don’t know if it’s due to the laidback Shetland attitude or if it’s because this is such an important tradition. Although there’s plenty of alcohol involved, it’s taken far too seriously and with too much respect to be turned into a free-for-all piss-up.
Finally the squads made their way through the gates into the playing fields and stood around the galley waiting for the Jarl to disembark and give the signal for the torches to be hurled onto the galley. It caught light quickly and a year’s work was turned into a bonfire. I’d moved to the road above the playing fields but was struggling to see over people’s heads. Standing on tip-toe I peered over shoulders. The boat took a long time to burn and people started to move away whilst the blaze was still roaring. I got a better view then and watched as the dragon head slowly drooped and fell, succumbing to the flames.
I stayed till the fire was almost out. Most people had left by then, but I wasn’t in any hurry as I didn’t have to be at the hall till 9.30pm. I wandered round to the other side of the playing fields. Most of the squads had left as they needed to get into their costumes. A few men were left watching the last of the flames die down. For some reason one of them decided to do the Haka – the Maori war dance made famous outside of New Zealand by the All Blacks who perform it at the start of their rugby games. A Viking doing the Haka; now that’s a cultural mish-mash I wasn’t expecting to see.
I chatted to an older guy who told me he’d spent some of his younger years around Manchester and Lancashire and then slowly made my way to the hall, buzzing from what I’d experienced so far and excited about what was to come.
To be continued …
To find the continuation in which I write about the Up Helly Aa night in the halls click here.
I wrote about the Up Helly Aa traditions here and about the history here.
You can find the main Up Helly Aa website here.