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Cullivoe fire festival a real family affair

Cullivoe guizer jarl John Saunders (aka Harald Finehair) with his two princesses, niece Bernadette (left) and granddaughter Jolie.

THERE’S a definite family feel to the fire festival in Yell this weekend being led by full time foster carer John Saunders from Sellafirth.

The 55 year old has a big family himself and they will all be taking part in the three day event that marks Cullivoe Up Helly Aa.

The character he plays, Harald Finehair, is well known in Norse mythology for uniting the country of Norway under a single crown.

However Saunders chose Harald not for his warrior strength or his fine locks, which he vowed to leave uncut until he unified the country, but for the size of his family.

While this year’s guizer jarl is not quite a match for Harald himself, who boasted anything up to 20 sons, he does have six children of his own with all five sons joining the 14 strong squad, which includes two young Vikings and two princesses, a brother-in-law and a son-in-law.

“I have a large family myself,” the jarl explains, “and my wife and I have taken up full time foster caring so we always have children in the house.

“My oldest son is 35 and my youngest is eight, so there’s quite a spread. It was when my older children started to leave home that we realised we had plenty of space in the house for more.

“We originally started giving respite care for disabled children, but realised there was more demand for fostering so we got into that.”

The family theme has spread to the galley’s name as well, which is Kynslod, which roughly translates as a “load of kin”.

The galley sports this year’s colours of purple, black and gold, which are featured in the outfits with knitted cloaks, crushed velvet kirtles and the figure of a serpent on shields, chests, buckles and leather armlets.

The serpent theme goes back to Saunders’ original idea of basing the fire festival around the Serpent of Midgard, in reference to Midgarth in Cullivoe, but that idea fell by the wayside during the months of planning for the event.

The decision to honour a warrior king rather than the “world serpent” obviously pleased the gods, who bestowed glorious sunshine on the occasion.

Cullivoe Up Helly Aa begins in Burravoe on Thursday with visits to old folk at the hall and bairns at the school, followed by a journey to Mid Yell to the school and the care centre along with one or two houses en route.

Friday is based entirely in Cullivoe culminating in the burning of the galley at the marina and a night in Cullivoe hall with Da Fustra.

The bulk of the Cullivoe jarl squad line up on a snowy night.

Finally Saturday sees all that hair dyed or removed for charity at the Burravoe hall with Da Fustra providing evening entertainment at the hop once again, after the local youngsters have put on their own variety concert.