PERHAPS it’s his military background, but this year’s Guizer Jarl led a particularly well choreographed display of Viking pride through the streets of Lerwick on Tuesday.
Resplendent in his mantle of shimmering cockerel feathers, David Nicolson looked very much the tribal chief as he led his disciplined band of warrior men and boys.
Their wine red tunics, black leather breastplates, glimmering steel of shield and axe, the magnificent raven topped helmets all displayed an incredible intricacy of design.
Addressing the assembled guests at Lerwick Town Hall as he received the freedom of the town for 24 hours, Jarl Böthvar Egilsson spoke of his pride, honour and humility on this great occasion.
He also spoke of his fears that another Jarl Squad would pre-empt his decision five years ago to return to the essential colour scheme of Up Helly Aa – the red and black of the raven flag. To his relief, they did not.
That the man is so profoundly steeped in the festival’s culture is unsurprising as the son and brother of two former and one soon-to-be Guizer Jarls.
He carries something of the fearsome presence of “the true berserker” whose name he bears for the occasion, “a tall strong man with long hair and a shaggy beard”, making a classic figurehead for a spectacle that every year impresses an ever greater number of onlookers, whether they live here, come to visit or view from afar on a screen.
But as the festival grows as a media spectacle, at heart it remains a Lerwick occasion arousing deep passions in the hearts of the men who keep it alive.
The Guizer Jarl evoked such feelings relating a tale from his second tour of duty in Northern Ireland in 1984 when he could barely concentrate on that evening’s briefing for patrolling the troubled streets of Belfast. It was the last Tuesday in January and his thoughts were elsewhere.
A colleague asked what was wrong. “Just a local thing back home,” he said. But his friend had seen Up-Helly Aa on Blue Peter. “That’s where they burn the boat, isn’t it?” “No, that’s when they burn a galley.”
He went off to receive his briefing and found the room empty on his return, only to discover seven men next door in the pool room throwing matches into a paper boat floating in a bucket of water. “I can’t say what I said, but it was colourful,” he recalled.
Psychotherapist and galley boy Brydon Leslie, whose recent book on the festival’s founder Haldane Burgess has won deserved acclaim, is still searching for the essence of an occasion that holds such a hold on the hearts of those involved.
“I’m not sure I understand it myself. There is the factual side of the story which isn’t so shrouded in mystery, but there’s an extra dimension that I can’t seem to put my finger on and I don’t think anyone can, because it’s almost transcendent.
“When you hear The Norseman’s Home you get that lump in the throat and tingle in the spine and sweat on the brow; there’s something quite profound there that you can’t explain.
“Many incomers see a spectacle, but they don’t get the meaning and I don’t know how to explain that.”
Fire festivals are ancient pagan celebrations that have stirred humanity’s soul for millennia. Up Helly Aa is no different.
But back in Lerwick Town Hall amidst the Famous Grouse, Gordon’s Gin and Stewart’s Rum the spirit of the occasion was summed up by the Jarl Squad’s rendition of the much-loved 1949 classic covered by everyone from Doris Day to The Specials.
“Enjoy yourself; it’s later than you think.”
More photos of the burning, the procession and the day’s events can be found at: Up-Helly Aa 2012 in Pictures