FORTY-FOUR years on from his first outing as a nine-year-old boy, Tuesday will be the fifth time that Neil Robertson has taken his place in Lerwick Up Helly Aa’s Jarl’s Squad – the difference being that on this occasion he’ll be the main man.
In 1971 he took his place in Alan Anderson’s squad – an experience he remembers very fondly: “As a peerie boy, things like swords – and we had spears that year – it was just a magical kind of toy to have”.
The Lerwick festival is known for sticking to most of its traditions, but one notable difference between then and now is the cost of the Viking suits. As Neil diplomatically phrases it, the early seventies squad “certainly put the emphasis on social enjoyment rather than the quality of the suit!”
Going on to be a fiddle box carrier in Ronnie Gear’s squad aged 12, Neil then had a year in the Anderson High School sixth year squad before returning to this squad. There has been a squad representative on the UHA committee dating all the way back to 1953 – a run Neil hopes will continue once he steps aside next year.
Shortly before he caught up with Shetland News at the Masonic Lodge amid an increasingly hectic schedule ahead of his big day, Neil had taken part in a photo shoot with five decades of living Jarls from his squad: John Johnston (1976), John Ratter (1985), Peter Leask (1995) and Brucie Leask (2002).
The squad’s sixth Jarl, the late George Paton, did the honours in 1963 and carrying on the family heritage is clearly important to those in Neil’s squad: along with his own father Bertie, now 85, squad colleagues Graeme Dorrat and Brucie Leask are also sons of founding members – Jimmy Dorrat and Steven ‘Groggy’ Leask.
Fifty two year old Neil spent around a decade studying in Edinburgh, variously at Heriot Watt, Stevenson College and Napier University, before working in London, Worcester and Essex for a time.
In 2000 he moved home to take up a job as transport policy officer in Shetland Islands Council’s planning department, the same year he joined the committee.
Two years later he moved to his current post as an engineer in the council’s roads department – a role that encompasses taking care of road closure information for events including UHA.
Following the introduction of the nationwide Police Scotland, had the festival needed to bring any officers to Shetland from the mainland it could have seen the committee incur a hefty bill. It would have faced picking up the tab for travel, accommodation and staff time, but instead an agreement was struck where the number of voluntary marshals has been increased.
Neil’s 70-strong Jarl’s Squad – similar in size to recent years – contains 54 men and 16 boys aged between five and 16. His brother-in-law Gary Williams and his son Ritchie Williams will be joining the squad, while one pal is travelling up from Essex.
It might be 13 years since his last Jarl’s Squad experience but “it doesn’t seem like it” having been involved with the committee all that time. Though it “would have been nice to get the whole thing over and done with when I was younger, healthier and fitter”, Neil smiles, with plenty of grew flowing through the impressively abundant fuzz of his whiskers.
The squad will be carrying on the recent trend of travelling outwith the islands to help raise Shetland’s profile, with a tourism expo in Aberdeen this April and various other possibilities including a late December jaunt to Edinburgh.
One aspect sure to be different to previous years is the squad’s suit design, based on a drawing by a Japanese computer gaming artist for a game called ‘Viking: Battle for Asgard’.
“There are loads of drawings for hundreds of characters, all warrior-like. Most of them are bare-chested, but we didn’t go for bare chests! I think the axe handles are unique, and the style of the suit, I hope, is unique.
“It’s awfully difficult to come up with something when you’re tied into the same brief at the beginning: making it flexible and lightweight, but we’ve certainly got some of it.”
Looking through shields from down the years hanging on the wall at the Galley Shed, he noticed how the materials being used changed.
“Just after the war it was pretty much anything they could get their hands on. Then there was more wood being used; eventually in the seventies you see some flashy stencils, latterly laser cutting, etching – technological advances have opened up a whole avenue to the squads and how detailed the suits can be.”
For this year modern techniques have been utilised, such as a plasma cutter to cut the metal and powder-coating at the Malakoff, and aside of importing some materials everything has been made locally. Simplicity is the aim of the game: there will be “very little detail in the suit that you can’t see from a distance”.
Without giving too much away, the character Neil will be representing as Jarl is “probably one of the most important people in Norwegian history”. “Norway is what it is today largely due to this person, and it’s a poignant anniversary of him in more than one aspect…”
Some critics of the festival bemoan the absence of women guizers from Lerwick UHA. What does he make of Lesley Simpson becoming the first ever female Guizer Jarl at the South Mainland Up Helly Aa (SMUHA) later in 2015?
“Virtually none of the country UHAs could manage to do what they do without having women in the squads,” he says. “They run their festivals to a different specification or set of requirements. I’ve no doubt that Lesley will have as good a day as every Jarl, and having seen a photo of her with Robbie, he’s certainly thrown himself into it.
“I was out at SMUHA for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a good night out, though it didn’t feel exactly like UHA.”
In his day job, Neil is on a weather forecast panel for winter frost on the roads, so he’s well aware that “the forecast tomorrow might or not be what you get”. “Anything saying wet in the morning and dry in the afternoon, I take with a pinch of salt.
“[The weather] will never put it off. In the worst case the torches will be lit and the galley hauled straight down to the park.
“It’d be awful fine not to go to the town hall in the morning soaking. But every Jarl that’s given me good wishes says you’ll enjoy it and the weather is just a bonus, so I’m kind of looking at it like that.”