DAVID Nicolson became infected with the Up Helly Aa bug when his father Jim took him to the galley shed at the tender age of six. That was back in 1968. The same year, young Davie was a member of the Jarl’s squad for the first time, awestruck by the presence of the Jarl, the late Thomas Simpson.
Forty four years later it is his turn to lead Shetland’s most famous festival. It’s a culmination of a momentous year for Davie, a year that has grown in intensity, long hours and hard work as all the pieces of the huge jigsaw fall into place for one of the most spectacular community festivals in the world.
During a chat over a cup of tea at the Islesburgh cafe last week, the 49 year old joiner took time out to reflect on the significance of the festival for him personally, but also for the community.
Anticipating Tuesday, he says revealing the design of this year’s suits and taking to the streets of Lerwick with his squad of 56 men and 14 junior Vikings will, no doubt, be an overwhelming moment.
He feels honoured and describes the fame that comes with the job as “humbling”, but there is more: he feels proud; proud to be a Shetlander, and proud of the Up Helly Aa festival.
“It is a great honour to be jarl, but more than that it shows Shetland in its best light. It brings the community together, everybody pulls together, the people who make the suits, the council, the police, the hosts and hostesses, everybody.
“When you become jarl, it is amazing to see how much goes into the festival. Everybody is pulling together for one aim. Up Helly Aa means a lot to a lot of people.”
In many ways it is the essence of Shetland, he says. “Up Helly Aa is what Shetland is and what Shetland does best. It brings the best out of people.”
For him, the Up Helly Aa way of life runs in the family. His father Jim was Guizer Jarl in 1979 (Egil Scallagrimsson), his brother Graham had the honour in 2007 (Gunnar Egilsson), and it is his other brother John’s turn in 2019. Depicting Böthvar Egilsson, the eldest son of Egil Scallagrimsson, Davie continues the family tradition.
Bothvar was a joiner by trade, who – tragically –lost his life at sea when on his way home with a cargo of wood. But ravens were seen circling over the sinking ship taking Bothvar’s spirit to Odin’s table.
And so the symbol of the raven, and with it the colours black and red, are the main theme of this year’s festival. Davie is particularly proud of his daughter Suzanne painting the Bill Head and the Collection Sheet.
The 21 year old student at the University for the Creative Arts, in London, will be back in Shetland to celebrate her father’s big day, as will his son Stuart, who studies sport science, in Newcastle. Davie will also be joined by his partner Margaret Scott, and her two boys Alistair and Cameron.
Davie joined the galley shed as a torch maker in 1978, the same year he left school and started an apprenticeship as a joiner. When his employer Goudie & Mowat went out of business, Davie fulfilled a long held dream, joining the armed forces to serve his country.
He served in Northern Ireland, the first Gulf War, and then became a member of the Queen’s Colour Squadron, a unique RAF regiment unit that among many other duties forms the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace.
He returned to Shetland in 1994 when he was posted to RAF Saxa Vord where he worked as an instructor for two years, before being paid off in the first wave of redundancies from the military in 1996.
He says that during all the years away he stayed in touch with his squad and the festival and even managed “four or five times” to get leave to be back home in Lerwick for that last Tuesday in January.
Barely back in civil life and working as a joiner at Irvine Contractors, Davie was elected on to the Up Helly Aa committee. Fifteen years later, his very special day has finally arrived!
And once it is all over? Well, he thanks his present employer T&N Joiners for giving him three weeks annual leave, but once all the festivities, including hop night, squad dinner dance and committee dinner dance, are over, he looks forward to going back to work, coming home at night and having a kip in front of the tellie after tea.