Burns night Shetland-style

A FIERY sun rose on Tuesday morning across Shetland as the 65 strong squad of Guizer Jarl John Hunter aka Johan Sanderrevet of Valsgärde prepared for the islands’ own burns night on Tuesday.

The morning’s brilliant red sky may have warned of poor weather ahead, but the Viking gang that marched through Lerwick on as fine a day as they could have wished for were well kitted out for the worst the Norse gods could throw at them later on.

The Jarl and his men sported the rich, muted tones of sea and land – long blue woven cloaks, deep green tunics, thick leather kirtles carrying an intricate design of a flaming torch on the front, long black trousers and calf length brown leather boots.

The costume included one novel feature that may prove popular in farming circles, each squad member bearing the skins of six rabbits across their shoulders.

The most impressive aspect of their attire was that it was almost entirely hand-made by the squad themselves – all but the boots, the trousers, the kirtles and, of course, the “ring”.

The ring is in fact a bracelet and like in Tolkien’s famous trilogy, it forms the basis of the entire saga on which this year’s Up Helly Aa is based.

Johan Sanderrevet was a restless Swede in the 9th century who sailed west on board his galley Jägere only to be hit by a storm of such severity that all but three of his fleet of  longships were driven onto the cliffs of Fugaey.

The Viking believed he was saved by his magical armlet made of woven gold called Svíagris; but this armlet was lost as he wintered on the isle of Oxna west of Scalloway.

More than a thousand years later a gold bracelet less than three inches in diameter was found by a young James Fullerton on that same island, a bracelet which can now be seen in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland.

Today copies of that bracelet adorned the chest of every member of John Henry’s squad as they filled an already packed Lerwick Town Hall.

After a rousing performance of the Up Helly Aa song and Bring Me Sunshine, SIC convener Sandy Cluness handed the Jarl the freedom of the town for 24 hours – an opportunity he promised to make the most of.

John Henry spoke of the tradition in which he has steeped himself since his youth, his membership of two squads who combined for today’s festival, and the fire festival’s importance in holding the community together amidst rifts over school closures and wind farms.

It was an occasion that couldn’t help but have an impact, not least on VisitScotland’s new chief executive Malcolm Roughead. Witnessing it for the first time, he was clearly affected by the palpable “sense of pride” amongst all present.

It may have helped him understand the feelings that led to Shetland Islands Council withdraw funding from VisitScotland two years ago and set up Promote Shetland, claiming that the national body did not understand how to present the islands to the outside world.

Tuesday morning also brought back memories of last year’s event, when former chief executive David Clark occupied a chair in the hall to watch the proceedings. That afternoon he left his office up the stairs never to return to his first public sector post.

In his stead this year sat Orcadian Alistair Buchan, who may have been the “friend” referred to in the convener’s speech. Citing a list of countries around the world from where friends had gathered for the occasion, he said: “We have friends here from all over the civilised world, and at least one new friend from Orkney.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021