Up Helly Aa

Back in 1983, my husband was offered a new job.

He’d been in the Merchant Navy – but we wanted to come ashore, so he applied for a job with HM Coastguard. He was successful, and his first posting was to Lerwick.

We had no real idea where Lerwick was. I think I vaguely thought it might be somewhere near Berwick.

It isn’t.

Lerwick is the main town of the Shetland Islands. The Shetland Islands are that group of islands off the north coast of Scotland (or more accurately, off the west coast of Norway) that only just make it onto the TV weather map.

We discovered that Shetland is a long way from Berwick. We drove past Berwick, past Edinburgh, and all the way to Aberdeen. Then we got on board the mv St Clair and settled down for a 14 hour passage, overnight. Shetland is a long way from a lot of places.

For the people of Shetland, the highlight of the year is Up Helly Aa. There’s a parade through the streets, led by the Jarl Squad dressed as Vikings, culminating in the burning of a Viking galley and then a lot of partying.

This is not dressing up, this is costume. Men save for years to be able to afford the costume, should they ever be chosen to be on to the Jarl Squad. You know who will be taking part each year, because they start letting their beards grow during the summer. The leader of the Jarl Squad is known as the Guiser Jarl, and it’s a big deal.

Following on behind the Jarl Squad are lots more squads (and it’s important to pronounce squad as in ‘bad’ rather than as in ‘bod’), all in some sort of costume – each one will have a theme.

They’re carrying flaming torches and end up at the children’s play area on King Harald Street, where they throw the torches onto a Viking galley and set it alight. It is magnificent.

Later in the evening, everyone goes to their local village hall, and the squads tour the halls doing a little performance at each one. This starts off fairly well, but as the evening wears on, and the drink takes its toll – well, you can imagine. One year, after a night shift, my husband gave a lift to a drunken duck who was trying to make his way home at seven in the morning…

It happens on the last Tuesday in January – so it should have been happening tonight. Only it isn’t.

Yet another thing that’s been cancelled due to Covid.

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Photo by Adonyi Gábor from Pexels

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