To non-Shetlanders Up Helly Aa can be a bit baffling. Newcomer to the islands Olivia Abbott decides to find out more – and who better to ask than this year’s Guizer Jarl?
When I asked Stephen Grant how he came to be involved in Up Helly Aa, there was a slight pause, as if he couldn’t quite understand the question.
He seemed to be thinking: “How could anybody male and living in Lerwick not be involved in Up Helly Aa?”
It’s 40 years since he began guizing, and in that time Stephen has missed the festival but twice.
He’s a seaman by trade – he works on the tug boats out at Sullom Voe, but he used to be “foreign-going”, travelling to the Far East, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and South America.
He vividly recalls one year of forced abstention, when he was 200 miles up the Orinoco river on Up Helly Aa day.
“One of the crewmen suddenly called to me, ‘Stevie, you’ve got to come back to the ship and listen to this!’ The radio was on, and it was the Guizer Jarl speaking on the World Service. So I just downed tools and went to the bar and had a pint!”
As well as guizing since he was 14, Stephen was foreman painter of the galley for about 15 years – a labour of love that, I suggest, must be a bit heartbreaking: all that work, only to watch your creation being burnt after a few brief hours of glory?
‘Well it is,’ he says philosophically, and then with an odd kind of anti-logic: “But you know you’ve got it all to do again next year.”
It was in the ‘90s, though, that Stephen decided he wanted to do a bit more, and proposed himself for election to the Up Helly Aa committee.
For those like me who aren’t familiar with how it works, let me try to give a brief explanation:
Becoming a committee member is the only way to become Guizer Jarl, and it is an assured route, if a long and slow one.
One place on the committee becomes vacant each year (unless a committee member retires, leaves for some reason, or dies in office) and prospective members have to raise enough votes among their fans and friends to beat any competition for the place.
There are 17 committee members and once you’re accepted, it’s then a 15 year wait for your day as chief Viking.
Clearly prompted by my stunned silence, Stephen makes the understatement of the century – “Yes, it’s quite a big commitment.”
Stephen’s wait, though, has in fact only been 14 years – one of the committee members sadly died and so he was “bumped up a year”.
Today, though, it’s his big day. And there’s a lot more to it than parading down the street with your carefully cultivated beard (18 months in the growing – “normally I’m clean shaven with a crew cut!”) and diligently designed Viking outfit (seven to eight weeks just coming up with the design, never mind actually making it) which, according to an estimate by one of Stephen’s squad, weighs about three-and-a-half stone.
No, you have to be something of an exhibitionist to be a guizer, with each squad devising and performing a dance routine or sketch at each of the 12 halls around the town.
And the Guizer Jarl’s squad also need to have plenty of stamina – carrying that three-and-a-half stone suit on a gruelling day’s appearances, visiting schools, old people’s homes, the museum and the hospital, lining the route to support the junior guizers’ procession, and then, of course, leading the main procession and the burning of the galley, before spending all night (and yes, that’s right through till 8 in the morning) entertaining and dancing at the halls.
Stephen’s usual squad of about 25 guizers has been boosted to 70 for his year as Jarl, with friends and family returning to Lerwick from all over the world for the occasion.
“I’ve got five guizers coming home from Australia for it, one each from Singapore and Norway, and six from the mainland.”
It’s very much a family affair, too. “Our squad started off as a group of guys who played football and went to school together and evolved from that, with sons, fathers, cousins and nephews coming in.”
Stephen’s own two sons are, of course, also involved – the elder has been guizing for 12 years, and the younger, who is just 12, will be a fiddle box carrier next year.
However, to be a true Viking you need a proper Viking name, so each Guizer Jarl chooses a character from the Norse sagas to identify with.
Stephen has chosen one Gamle Eriksson. “I wanted a character who was small – because I’m on the smaller side! – and who had a seafaring background, like me.”
Eriksson was nephew to the King of Norway, and, spotting a chance to attempt a takeover of the throne, set off around the Scandinavian countries and islands to gather men to do battle.
“But his uncle ended up outwitting him when he went ashore to fight, and he drowned trying to get back to his ship.” So, not the most successful of Vikings, then? No, agrees Stephen cheerfully.
Because that’s not really the point. Although Up Helly Aa is in some ways taken very seriously by its participants, they’re also quite at peace with the knowledge that it’s all the slightly mad invention of a Victorian writer and poet.
It doesn’t make it any less important. It’s about community and continuity and the keeping up of an – albeit relatively modern – tradition.
And nothing is going to spoil Stephen’s big day. When I ask him what he’s looking forward to most, he says without hesitation: “Obviously, parading through the town – and then the burning of the galley.”
Maybe that’s because, with all the work he’s had to do to prepare for being Guizer Jarl, this is the first year in about 15 that he hasn’t actually taken part in building it.
Today’s (Tuesday) proceedings will be broadcast live by Promote Shetland at: http://uphellyaa.com/ starting at 10am.