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Independent minded jarl leads Nort fire fest

A family affair. Guider Jarl James Titcomb (Thorir Hund) with his father Peter, daughter Eloise and son Darryl on a sunnier day earlier in the week preparing for the big day. Photo Gordon Stove

FRIDAY is a proud day for the much-travelled Englishman at the helm of this year’s Northmavine Up Helly Aa.

Despite being married to a Shetland wife for more than 20 years, James Titcomb considers himself an incomer honoured to have been taken into the heart of the community to lead its most emblematic cultural event.

Friday’s fire festival sees him transform into Guizer Jarl Thorir Hund, a Viking chieftain from the Tromsø area of northern Norway, for whose fierce sense of independence he feels a deep affinity.

Hund battled to protect his lands and pagan beliefs against the unification of Norway under the Christian king Olaf, a fight that appeals to Titcomb’s belief in autonomy for the isles.

“He fought to keep the old religions and his own lands, which kind of fits in with who I am,” the jarl said.

Guider Jarl Thorir Hund at the tail end of his galley Ain Urrida on a wet and windy Friday afternoon in Hillswick.

“I don’t get on with organised religion and I firmly believe Shetland should be its own independent self governing state – so there is a political and religious element to Thorir Hund that fits my point of view.”

His conviction that Shetland should be master of its own destiny might appear unusual for a man from outside the isles with such a cosmopolitan upbringing.

Born in Hong Kong to parents in the RAF, his growing up years were spent in such exotic realms as Cyprus when the Turks invaded and Malta when it gained independence from the UK.

When his parents took over Hillswick’s St Magnus Bay Hotel in 1990 he would come to stay between stints working offshore, and it was there he met his future wife Carol who introduced him to the islands’ cultural life.

“It was when I got involved with Carol’s family in Urafirth that I saw the true Shetland and fell in love with it. I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

The couple have two grown up children Darryl and Eloise and run a croft, but James still spends much of his time in far corners of the world thousands of miles from his northern home.

He works providing technical back up for a firm selling navigation systems for underwater vehicles to the oil industry, which has recently seen him as far afield as Japan, Texas, Brazil and Singapore.

Europe is a more common destination, especially France and Norway, where he came across the legend of Thorir Hund while working with the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø.

Titcomb has taken his role as Guizer Jarl very seriously. He stopped cutting his hair the moment he was asked to lead this year’s festival two years ago, and has been growing a fulsome beard for more than a year.

“I was really honoured to be asked as an incomer, but it’s really indicative of Shetland society where someone born in Hong Kong and raised all over the world can come to Shetland and end up being a jarl.

“There are not many places in the world where you could come into a community and be taken that far into the heart of it.”

Squad member Peter Sinclair hands over the music for his freshly composed tune Thorir Hund's Two Step to a happy jarl. Photo Gordon Stove

His wild, outlandish appearance has raised a few eyebrows on his professional travels giving presentations about complex electronics to oil industry executives around the world.

“Some of my presentations have had a few slides at the start explaining what Up Helly Aa is and why I look the way I do,” he confessed.

“It’s been quite interesting when I have met people I haven’t seen for a while who haven’t a clue who I am until I open my mouth. It’s quite funny.

“What do they think? Well, pretty much everyone I have spoken to says the beard suits me and I should keep it, which is kind of at odds to what Carol thinks.”

In keeping with the times, Titcomb’s squad’s outfit cut down on the bling with a more restrained and authentic look, with muted browns and greens and a predominance of copper.

“That’s my background in electronics,” he explains. “I’ve got copper on the rivets in the helmets, the nose piece, my leather jerkin, and copper studs on the weapons.”

It’s a striking feature, with the reindeer skins and green Sandness tweed kirtles having the added bonus of helping to keep at bay the wild weather that blew away the blue skies on Friday afternoon.

The shield is in the Norse “gripping beast” style with a design of a snake intertwined around a dog, representing the work on the croft with dogs.

The design was created by Bente Whyatt, the daughter of work colleague Jan Aadland who travelled from Anglesey to be in the squad.

It’s a big squad of 31 men, six princesses, six musicians and a fiddle box carrier who arrived from New Zealand with his brother John and his nephew Dan.

Never mind the weather. The whole squad gathers on and around Ain Urrida at Hillswick on a wet and windy Friday afternoon.

Apart from that it’s a strictly local affair, apart from parents Peter and Adrienne who returned to the isles for the occasion. In fact the galley is named in honour of his mother’s Cumbrian home town of Troutbeck, translated as Ain Urrida.