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SMUHA can’t get much bigger

460 torch wielding guiders follow the SMUHA galley down to the Peerie Spiggie beach on Friday night for the burning. Photo Chris Brown

IT MAY be the new guy on the block, but South Mainland Up Helly Aa is growing so fast it now rivals Delting and is half the size of the big Lerwick event in January.

On Friday coastguard helicopter engineer Scott Lobban led his tribe of lads and lasses out for this most modern of Shetland’s fire festivals.

SMUHA has the only jarl squad to feature a significant number women as equals wielding shields and axes, rather than merely coming along as princesses as in the other rural fire festivals. Uyeasound UHA featured one female warrior this year, showing the trend is spreading perhaps.

That's a nasty looking foot beside SMUHA guizer jarl Scott Lobban, aka Haraldr Harfagri, a fierce warrior Viking indeed. P{hot Chris Brown

Having taken the helm from last year’s pioneering female guizer jarl Lesley Simpson, Lobban could not have been more enthused about his big day.

His excitement was infectious and egged on by the enthusiasm with which the south mainland communities have taken to their new annual event, now just six years old.

Even the drizzly weather on Friday morning could not dampen the spirits of the 48 strong squad as they towed their shaded blue galley from Toab, where the bill was revealed, to Lerwick to start their rigorous day of duties.

As a very hairy Haraldr Harfagri, the famous Viking chief who refused to cut his hair until he united Norway, Lobban – who has been growing his hair for two years – led 24 men, 12 women, six bairns and six musicians around the schools picking up more and more excitement everywhere they went.

First off was Anderson High School’s additional support needs department, followed by the Peerie Foxes nursery where his partner Aileen Blance works, and then the primary schools of Sound, Cunningsburgh, Sandwick and Dunrossness.

In between they had breakfast at the Ness Boating Club, lunch at Sumburgh Hotel and tea at Levenwick hall after meeting the old folk at Overtonlea care centre.

SMUHA is a well thought out event that offers a variety unmatched elsewhere, thanks to the decision to shift the burning site each year to the area the jarl represents.

As Lobban hails from Quendale and flies the flag for Dunrossness, Friday’s procession headed from Scousburgh down to Peerie Spiggie beach where the galley was pushed out onto the waves to be consumed by the fire from no less than 460 torches.

The galley burns on the sea off Peerie Spiggie beach. Photo Chris Brown

“It’s about as big as it can get,” the jarl said of the seventh fire festival, which has 25 squads and more than 500 guizers taking part in a night of festivities at five different halls.

The squad is wearing blue kirtles and dresses, protected by a brown flecked Harris Tweed cloaks thanks to the western isles connections of squad members Derek and Karen Mackay.

The design on the wooden shields is Celtic knotwork, reflecting the 41 year old’s training with the Royal Navy who he joined at 18 to learn his trade working on Sea King helicopters, who gave their name to the galley The Sea King.

He returned to Shetland 13 years ago where he has raised 15 year old Charlotte and 12 year old Stuart.

As a founding member of SMUHA back in 2010 he is extremely proud to be the figurehead of this year’s event.

“It’s overwhelming how SMUHA has come on,” he exclaimed.

“It’s just developed into an absolutely phenomenal community event in the south mainland and the enthusiasm you get from everybody, especially the bairns and the schools is second to none.

“It’s just taken off and inspired so many people.”

It certainly looks like the future of this fast growing event is assured.

The 48 strong squad line up aboard and around the galley The Sea King with Guider Jarl Scott Lobban at the helm outside Sumburgh Hotel.

This article was altered on Sunday in response to two messages pointing out that almost 30 years ago Annette Priest was guizer jarl on Unst, making Lesley Simpson the second female guizer jarl in the history of the fire festival. Secondly it was pointed out that Uyeasound UHA this year featured one female warrior, so SMUHA is not the only one to have axe wielding women taking part in the procession. The times they are a-changing?