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Yell’s gruelling three day Viking party

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LIKE the community itself, Cullivoe Up Helly Aa is growing from strength to strength with no small thanks due to this year’s jarl’s ancestors.

Back in 1970 when Andrew Williamson was Guizer Jarl the number of squads was on the decline.

So the following year his wife, local head teacher Carol, and he organised the first primary school pupils’ Up Helly Aa squad.

“Ever since then the local bairns have been so used to being in a squad that when they leave school they automatically think about joining a squad or setting up their own,” said Andrew and Carol’s 51 year old son John Williamson.

This year John is Guizer Jarl himself, adopting the mantle of one of the most mythical and possible apocryphal Viking chieftains, Ragnar Lodbrok.

Lodbrok, whose name means “hairy breeches”, is one of the age’s better known Vikings having been played by the great Ernest Borgnine in the 1958 Kirk Douglas Hollywood classic The Vikings, based on a 1951 novel.

More recently the fearsome warrior chief appeared on television screens played by Travis Fimmel in the History Channels historical drama series, also called The Vikings.

“I hadn’t seen The Vikings before I decided to become Ragnar Lodbrok,” Williamson insisted. “ I liked him because he was such a well-known raider who goes back to the earlier times.”

Lodbrok, if he actually existed as a single person, is alleged to have come to a sticky end after terrorising Scotland, England and France, when he was captured by Northumbria’s King Aella and thrown into a pit of snakes.

This weekend has been a happier occasion for his modern day counterpart, though the Cullivoe Up Helly Aa is probably the most gruelling of the islands’ fire festivals taking place over three days and stretching the length of Yell.

Starting in Burravoe on Thursday at the school before heading for Mid Yell, where as well as the bairns and the old folk, the salmon packing station where Williamson works was honoured with a visit.

The crofter from Colvister led a squad of nine men and with his three daughters Lana (12), Emma (9) and Katy (7) joining as warrior princesses, and his four year old nephew Bradley the youngest member.

They looked an impressive sight with their blue velvety kirtles, leather breast plates, cuffs and helmets with reindeers skins and furry boots all keeping the cold wind out.

The motifs were predominantly wolves, based on the mythical Norse wolf Fenrir after whom the galley was named, mixed with Celtic designs, and the axes were of the double-headed, bearded variety. Ravens featured on the leather wing-shaped cuffs.

After a successful burning on Friday the squad have dinner in Burravoe on Saturday ahead of the hop back in Cullivoe, where they will be sporting a variety of strange hairstyles.

These will have to be worn all week until next weekend’s return when they will be shaved off for charity, with all donations going to the RNLI and the local care centre.