Features / Ready for the buzz of his big day

The vast, bearded figure looming over neatly stacked tins of varnish in the Anderson and Cluness paint shop must surely have been born to lead the jarl squad on Up Helly Aa day.

For Ivor Cluness looks every inch the Guizer Jarl with his tangled mane of hair, bushy beard and hulking physique.


We sit down to chat among the pots of emulsion. Even dressed in every day clothes and answering telephone calls from customers he possesses a formidable Viking quality, it does not take a huge leap of imagination to picture his face flame lit by torch light on his long awaited big day.

Ivor has chosen the similarly larger than life Ivar Ragnarsson (Ivar the Boneless) as his Viking namesake, saying that his chosen warrior was “quite a character”, an understated way of describing a man who was prone to fighting in trance-like furies.

Up Helly Aa has always had a special place in Ivor’s heart; even when his family moved south to mainland Scotland the festival remained an important part of the young boy’s life.


He recalls his earliest memory of the festival: “We did a school project and because we were from Shetland my teacher was very interested in the whole lot to do with Up Helly Aa.

“My older brothers, who were still in Shetland, they sent down bits of suits and bits of jarl suits.”

Ivor returned to Shetland to complete the last two years of his schooling and became involved in Up Helly Aa with friends he had met at school, initially standing in to cover illness for a college friend in the squad.


He joined the late Don Leslie’s squad in 1986, where he has remained ever since, his gruff demeanour melting away when he talks about the “fun” he has enjoyed with them for the past 32 years.

I ask him to tell me more. “Our squad is a fantastic squad. The mix of what everyone does is vast. We all go about wir own lives throughout the year, but come September time then we all get together and gel well together.

“Sometimes we have a bit of a job getting an idea for an act, but once we do everybody has a good fun doing it. There’s a real camaraderie and we always have a really good squad dance.

“Once it’s all over we all just drittle away back to do wir own thing and wait for September again – except for this last year!”

Anyone who has ever witnessed the unforgettable spectacle which is Up Helly Aa will be in no doubt about the amount of organisation which must go into the event.

I ask Ivor what takes the most time to prepare. “There’s a lot that goes into getting your idea. To a degree you’re held back because you’ve got to see what the previous year are going to do.

Ivor Cluness (Ivar the Boneless) at St Ninian's Isle beach on Sunday.

“Ex jarl Stevie Grant kept me informed about what they were doing with their suit, but you’ve got to wait to make totally sure before you can finally rubber stamp what you’re going to go with.”

He is, however, quick to stress that in no way are jarl squads in competition with each other. “You just want it to be unique for your year.”

This year, the jarl squad will be attired in suits with kirtles made using wool from native Shetland sheep.

The wool itself is a newly developed yarn called “Shetland Heritage”: a yarn which recreates the original characteristics of hand spun wool used in very old Shetland garments and replicated from the wool found in hand knitted Fair Isle garments in the collection of the Shetland Museum and Archives.

The jarl squad will also be wearing pouches, hand woven at Global Yell textiles from the same yarn.

Clearly, the role of jarl demands stamina and commitment. I ask Ivor what qualities he believes a jarl should possess.

“I think that you’ve got to be able to communicate well with your squad. And you need to be known. People like to know you and know who you are.”

I suggest that the role must also require patience, after all, Ivor has waited 15 years for this day. He brushes his long wait away: “It’s just gone like that”, he says.

Ivor is equally understated about the hard work he has put in throughout this year.

“The squad have all worked like Trojans in different corners of Lerwick, and so that makes my level of commitment easy, knowing I’ve got that behind me.”

He pronounces himself “humbled” by the response from the local community, and amazed at the number of well-wishers who have frequently popped into the paint shop to wish him a good year and success as Guizer Jarl.


Ivor is the second youngest in the family of seven. Sadly his older brothers have passed away, but his remaining brother has been helping with preparations and his two sisters are travelling from South to share their younger brother’s special day.

He has two daughters and two sons and is clearly delighted that both of his sons, Russell and John Scott, are in the squad with him: “They’re leading the ranks. I’m proud to have both sons leading out front with me.”

Up Helly Aa is the day Ivor has been waiting for, a culmination of years of friendship, hard work and planning.

What does he imagine will be his own personal highlight? “Oh, I think when you first take the squad out on show, I think seeing the initial reaction on people’s faces. I think that’s the whole thing for me – the buzz and the excitement that goes through the town.”

As I wish this year’s Guizer Jarl all the best he thanks me and grins. “The only thing that might be against us is the weather”, he says, “but even then we’ll still go on.”

Now there’s Viking attitude for you.

Genevieve White

Meeting the presenter of the BBC programme Coast at the St Ninian's Isle tombolo.