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Fire Festival 2013 / 2013 Up Helly Aa – peerie jarls are great ones

Two year old Levi Leask thoroughly enjoyed the morning procession - Photo: Olivia Abbott

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When I accepted this commission I was a bit sceptical about all the hoo-ha surrounding Up Helly Aa. I was told: “It certainly is special; it touches you. It is powerful.” But I still thought: “Yeah…”

Then, on Monday, I went to the galley shed for a sneak preview of the colours, and I walked the route of the march with all the other photographers.

I was chatting to last year’s jarl – this year’s chief marshal – David Nicolson, who was trying to explain it, how he’d felt on his big day, and he said: “It’s a bit like trying to describe becoming a parent to someone who hasn’t had children. Unless you’ve been there you can’t really know how it feels.”

Fast forward to Tuesday morning, and the sight of 70 men marching up the streets, dressed in exquisitely decorated, ornate Viking costumes, every last detail carefully constructed (even the end of the axe handle has a Shetland cross on it), accompanied by the pipe band and with crowds of people cheering them on, and I couldn’t help but be moved.

There are serious Vikings (though none of them is ever as serious as the marshals), jovial Vikings, dour Vikings, laughing Vikings, ferocious Vikings, friendly Vikings, tall Vikings, short Vikings, young Vikings and old Vikings. None is as important though as the chief Viking, Guizer Jarl Stephen Grant, resplendent in his winged helmet, silver chainmail and fur cloak. He leads his men and boys through the streets, clearly having the time of his life.

And people come from all over the world to see the spectacle. Andy and Niki Renals have come from Cyprus. “It’s amazing,” said Niki. “The work that’s obviously gone into those outfits is really impressive. The pipes and drum band are great too. I found myself unexpectedly moved.”

“It’s brilliant the way everyone gets behind it,” said Andy. ‘What a great event – for locals and visitors.”

Certainly locals were also getting into the spirit – especially two year old Levi Leask, who’d donned his knitted Viking hat the day before and refused to take it off. “He actually slept in it!” said his dad, as Levi took the opportunity to have his picture taken on the galley, waving his axe in enthusiastic mini-Viking style. Definitely a jarl in the making.

The galley itself is beautifully decorated – we find out at the reception in Lerwick Town Hall that the white horses incorporated in the decorations and the shields represent the galley of Gamle Eriksson, Stephen’s chosen alter ego from the Norse sagas.

Stephen is given the freedom of the town – though, said convenor Malcolm Bell: “We’ll have to be careful, as the last time Gamle Eriksson came to Shetland he ousted the local authority and took control of the islands!”

Our jarl, though, has come in peace, and he ends his speech by telling the audience about the day he was accepted on to the Up Helly Aa committee, 15 years ago. “The ex-jarl came to congratulate me,” he said, “and he told me there were three types of jarl – OK jarls, good jarls, and great jarls.”

“It’s always the peerie ones that are the great ones!”

And peerie Stevie is all set for the fire festival tonight, as are locals and visitors. I expect even little Levi will be allowed to stay up for it.

‘Completely bonkers’

I certainly found myself moved by the evening’s events. The weather turned foul – driving rain and a gusting, unfriendly wind that, no matter which way you turned, seemed to drive the wet into your camera.

No matter, it didn’t daunt the drummers or the pipers, least of all the guizers – whether they were dressed in little more than a plastic bag or wrapped up in a head-to-toe jumpsuit.

It was ‘completely bonkers’ to quote one visitor to Shetland for the event. And yes it was, but bonkers in a way that made you want to be bonkers as well.

You’d have to have a hard heart not to be stirred by the sight of the torches being lit in a demonic red glow, the jarl in his galley surrounded by his singing squad coming down the road towards you, and another 1,000 guizers marching proudly, no matter what the weather threw at them.

Most of all, you’d have to have a very hard heart indeed not to be impressed, stirred and moved by the sight of 1,000 torches all circling the doomed galley, then setting her on fire as the culmination of a wild, wet and windy evening.

And as her dragon-shaped figurehead, finally, collapsed and sank with a baleful glare, it was sad, thrilling and exciting all at once. So that’s what Up Helly Aa is all about.

Olivia Abbott

Please also read ‘Quite a big commitment’