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Fire Festival 2013 / Fearsome, but modest – Vikings of the south

The burning of the galley - Photo: Mark Berry

“It’s a great event for the whole community, and I’m very proud to be just a small part of it,” is as modest an acknowledgment as you are ever likely to get from a Viking warrior leader.

In his normal life Dale Smith from Sandwick is manager of Islesburgh Community Centre.

On Friday he transformed into Rognvald Eysteinsson, guizer jarl with the South Mainland Up Helly Aa at the helm of his 49 strong squad dressed in dark green kirtles, reindeer skins, black helmets adorned with intricate Celtic silverwork and armed to the teeth

He admitted to having “a complete mixture of feelings and emotions” as he led his squad and galley Sunnanhamar into Lerwick for a quick ‘raid’ on the Anderson High School ASN department, before retreating back to the sanctuary of the south mainland for a full day of marauding, including visits to schools and care homes in the area.

It was a spectacular and rowdy Friday morning awakening for the ASN staff and pupils who were dancing away as Dale led his squad into the building singing, cheering and making enough Viking related noise to literally shake the walls and rattle the timbers of the building itself.

SMUHA guizer jarl Rognvald Eysteinsson, aka Dale Smith, with his galley Sunnanhamar. Photo Davie Gardner

But fear not gentle readers……. as always it’s all done in the best possible and convivial Up Helly Aa style taste. No-one gets hurt (unless they happen to accidentally fall over guizing) nor indeed is there any wild Viking feasting on roast wild boar and deer.

No, on this occasion lunch was taken in a local hotel and tea in a community hall ahead of the pinnacle of the event, the fiery torch-lit procession through Sandwick and ritualistic burning of the galley at Hoswick beach later in the evening.

Back at the ASN department the young folk were absolutely loving the whole thing and were soon adorning themselves with helmets, shields and axes for a photo session. No cowering or trembling before this bunch of, it has to be said, very friendly Viking raiders.

“We’ve always been inclusive in SMUHA from the outset,” said the jarl.

Uniquely SMUHA incorporates a good number of female members in the jarl squad, including Smith’s wife, while the youngest warrior is Thomas Leask at a mere three years old.

“No disrespect of course to other Up Helly Aas, but this is how we’ve chosen to do things and we believe it makes for a great and inclusive community event all round.”

Raid over, it was back on the bus (their accompanying galley simply can’t hold them all, you understand) for the next port of call at Sound primary school before heading over the distant horizon to Cunningsburgh, Sandwick and beyond!

It may be the youngest Up Helly Aa, but SMUHA is now firmly established in our cultural calendar and is one more event to make us proud of our identity, heritage and, in short, what we have here in Shetland in general.

For now though we can only wish Jarl Smith and his squad fair winds, glad tidings and good luck for the inevitable rigours for the challenges they will face over the next few days and nights.

They certainly brightened up an otherwise fairly routine and dull Friday morning in Lerwick, that’s for sure.

Davie Gardner