THERE is a poetic touch to the first of the two Up Helly Aa fire festivals that are helping the islanders of Unst through this stormy winter.
Fortunately the storms abated for the day and the sun shone bright as organic salmon farmer Christopher Ritch paraded a fulsome beard as the ill-fortuned Gunnlaug the Wirm-Tongue who suffered an untimely death over the love of a beautiful woman.
To celebrate the occasion, rather than singing a song, the jarl is reciting a poem written by Papa Stour’s George PS Peterson about Harald Fairhair who refused to shave until he became King of Norway.
“I am not intending to become King of Norway, but I do have a rather huge beard,” he said.
Gunnlaug was a warrior and a poet, though his words were considered to have something of a bite.
He died after winning a duel with another man called Raven by chopping off his opponent’s leg.
However agreeing to his victim’s request for water, he delivered it to him in his helmet, allowing Raven to sever his head, both men dying for the love of Helga the Fair, the most beautiful woman in Iceland.
“I felt he was an interesting guy,” Ritch said.
The story is beautifully represented on the bill head painted by local artist Heather Wilson.
The galley head is another fine work of art crafted by cousin Paul Ritch, who spent three months in the galley shed fashioning a large piece of Orgeon pine with help from other squad members into a stunning design based on the Gunnlaug theme.
The squad is, the jarl claims, more traditionally Viking. Rather than wear a uniform, the 22 squad members’ outfits and shields vary, while all wearing grey cloaks and kirtles.
The shields were made by another cousin, Martin, using copper rivets to fix on the steel bosses. “No bling!” Ritch crowed.
He said the squad was made up largely of relations, including son Finn who travelled from Hamburg for the occasion, daughter Merrin, niece Morgan, eight cousins and various brothers in law.
The Uyeasound fire festival has a rich tradition in the jarl’s family, with grandfather Jimmy playing jarl in 1963, before Christopher was born.
The sun provided perfect conditions for the squad as they traversed the isle to visit the Baltasound school, where traditional Up Helly Aa songs were followed by the Geordie Peterson poem Harald’s Vow and a donation of books to the library.
The Baltasound bairns painted the shields for the burning galley ahead of the fire.
Next was a visit to the old folk in the Nordalea care home and a big feast in the galley shed before the party gets under way.
The night will be lively with 180 guizers performing in 16 squads and all the tickets sold out for the concert and dance at Uyeasound public hall.
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