THE INCLEMENT gales and driving rain may have forced Guizer Jarl Ivor Cluness and his squad to relocate from Alexandra Wharf to the Lower Hillhead for their morning photo shoot.
But Europe’s largest fire festival always carries on come what may, even if we’re in the midst of the longest stretch of winter winds in 21 years, and as Ivor’s 63-strong squad of hairy, hardy Viking men filed into Lerwick Town Hall it was clear that a bit of wind and water wasn’t going to derail them.
Tuesday morning’s traditional civic gathering saw the usual collection of councillors, ex Jarls, committee members, family and important figures from the local business community filling the grand main hall, albeit one whose crumbling paintwork suggests it could use some TLC.
Speaking of needing mended, council leader and cycling fanatic Gary Robinson showed up with his arm in a sling following an untimely fall from his bike.
A special mention to the stellar cast of traditional musicians – including Maurice Henderson, Kenny Johnson and Grant Nicol – kitted out in bonnets with a distinctly Nova Scotian feel for the occasion.
The squad announced their arrival with a flurry of mighty roars and a stirring rendition of JJ Haldane Burgess’ Up Helly A’ Song, its words hardwired into the brains of islanders from an early age. Then rang out the equally unmistakable motif of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl, this year’s squad anthem, the riff played – and why not? – on the accordion.
Delivering a warm civic welcome, and granting Ivor the freedom of Lerwick for 24 hours was Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell.
He struck the right tone in toasting the Jarl’s Squad while gently poking fun at “star of the show” Ivor.
Someone’s mobile phone interrupted Bell as he mouthed the word “inflation”.
Collecting himself, he explained that he wasn’t referring to the dreary matter of da coonty’s fiscal woes, but to “the inflation in the size of this year’s Jarl” comparative to the diminutive Stevie Grant last year.
At least having a bulkier chief guizer might prevent the galley from blowing away, he joked.
Bell cautioned the thirsty Vikings that the sign in the men’s room saying “wet floor” should be read as “a warning and not an instruction”.
He took gentle revenge for “some of the things that have appeared on the bill down the years” (today sees low-profile chief executive Mark Boden teased for his parsimonious ways – having apparently refused to donate to the festival’s coffers) by reeling off an anecdote about a squad trip to Aberdeen.
Having arrived off the ferry the squad’s changing room was a byre shared with some Aberdeen Angus kye. When Ivor bent down and exposed “a certain part of his anatomy” it “attracted the attention of an amorous young calf”, we were told.
Following a couple of weeks’ counselling, the calf was said to have recovered from the experience.
After Bell raised a toast it was the turn of Ivor, aka Ivar (The Boneless) Ragnarsson, to address the assortment of civic worthies, saying he was “honoured and privileged” to be enjoying his moment in the limelight following a 15-year stint on the committee.
Ivor had sought advice from a former jarl about the art of speech making – the reply being: “A speech is like visiting a nudist camp for the first time. The first few minutes are always the hardest.”
After his family left Shetland, Ivor retained a strong interest in all things Up Helly Aa before moving home in the late 1970s. He joined what was then the late Don Leslie’s squad in 1986, and while the quality of their acts might have been variable down the years they’ve always enjoyed a great time.
Members of the squad have travelled from various parts of Scotland – and all the way from Australia in the case of Andrew Angus (dubbed “rent-a-Viking” by Ivor as it’s his second successive year in the Jarl’s Squad) – to enjoy being part of Ivor’s big day.
The employment of cowhide for the smart monochrome suits proved to be savvy: as Ivor said, it “looks tremendous – and it’s waterproof”.
He paid tribute to the many individuals and organisations whose efforts ensure the festival keeps on rolling. Special mention went to squad leader Alex Kidd, from Inverness, Ivor’s two sons Russell and John Scott, and of course his wife Fiona: “I couldn’t have done any of this without her.”
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