ON a drizzly Friday February morning a squad of hardy Vikings headed out to begin the celebrations of this year’s first rural Up Helly Aa in Nesting and Girlsta.
For Guizer Jarl Mark Gifford it marks the culmination of a lifetime as a dedicated follower of the fire festival since his childhood days staying with his grandparents at Da Vaddle in South Nesting.
For the occasion he is donning the mantle of Norwegian Viking warrior and cairn builder Flóki Vilgerðarson, who famously sailed forth to set up house in Iceland in the ninth century, stopping off in Shetland en route.
Leading Friday’s procession with his squad of 22 men, four boys and five princesses, the 37 year old is following in a lengthening family tradition.
His late maternal grandfather Charlie Anderson was one of the instigators of Nesting and Girlsta festival in 1961, taking on the role of Guizer Jarl himself in 1977.
Gifford clearly remembers as a child listening to the men conjuring up jokes for the bill at his grandparents’ house, and listening to Charlie play his beloved German fiddle during the procession.
That fiddle is being revived this year for the first time since 1999, to be played by famous Shetland fiddler Bryan Gear, a brother in law to the jarl’s brother John, accompanied by Yell brothers workmates Kevin and Gary Brown.
While reviving an old tradition, this year’s jarl is also setting a new trend likely to become a precedent for the central Shetland festival.
“My galley is going to sea to be burned, for the first time in the Nesting and Girlsta Up Helly Aa,” he proclaimed.
“I just feel that’s really how it should be done. That’s how the Vikings would have done it.
“I don’t suppose Vikings would have dragged their galleys up on to the land and then burned them.”
A skilled worker of metal, as well as a seaman working on salmon well boats and a crofter to boot, Gifford has crafted a metal raft on which to launch the galley at a carefully prepared site near the normal burning site below the old South Nesting school.
He’s excited. “This is a new tradition and the tide will be perfect.”
The galley is named Sneckan after a reef just by the Hoo Stacks, the undoing of several vessels over the years, but which brings back childhood memories of learning to fish with grandfather’s Charlie o da Vaddle and Hamilton Gifford, on his father’s side.
Indeed, the sea is strong in the Gifford blood with great grandfather Thomas skippering the Earl of Zetland as it transported goods and passengers around the isles.
That is why the emblem on the shields this year is the compass rose, used by mariners the world over to help guide them across the waters (unlike his Viking character who had only the stars and his ravens to guide him to Iceland).
This will be the sixth time Mark has been in the jarl squad, including 1997 when his father Philip took the role.
But it’s his grandfather Charlie who will have the greatest influence on this year’s procession, with the costumes and the galley bringing back memories of his own red and white colour scheme in ’77.
The five princesses are dressed in red, while the inside of the galley is white, the outer boards painted grey and red.
The men’s outfits include grey kirtles, rabbit skins on the legs and feet, sheepskins on the back, wooden shields, wooden handled axes with stainless steel blades, their grey fibre glass helmets adorned with, crows’ wings, while the jarl has raven’s wings.
Braving the sodden conditions, the squad is trooping around the schools and visiting old folk across the area, which has expanded over the years to the west.
However tonight’s dance has been shifted from Whiteness and Weisdale hall to Tingwall as a mark of respect for Jeffrey Tulloch, the halls’ former caretaker, who has passed away.
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