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2016 fire festival season culminates in Unst

Guizer jarl Grant Smith with the two junior squad members James Nicolson (left) and Kane Paul (right). Photo: Desley Stickle

SHETLAND’S Up Helly Aa season has lasted a day longer than expected after the Norwick fire festival in Unst was postponed following the death of one of the event’s stalwarts.

Thelma Spence had played a big part in launching the most northerly of all the fire festivals so it was only fitting to delay the celebrations to honour her passing.

Guizer jarl Grant Smith paid tribute to her as he led out his squad of 17 men and two boys on Saturday morning for a day of festivities to mark the end of the winter.

Smith was born in Lerwick but became an honorary member of the Unst community when he married his wife Lyla from Haroldswick.

The couple holidayed every year on the isles when they lived in Aberdeen, only moving back to Shetland four years ago.

“This is a good place to be with a good community atmosphere and spirit that is quite infectious,” the jarl said ahead of his big day.

Having worked in the oil industry on the mainland he became a contractor at Sullom Voe, but left late last year to join fish agents LHD in Lerwick carrying out marine supplies.

This weekend Smith transformed into Haraldr Grafeldr, better known as Harald Greycloak, son of Eirik Bloodaxe and grandson of Harald Finehair after whom Haroldswick on Unst is named.

It seemed a fitting name, the jarl said, as his squad wore grey cloaks over their electric blue kirtles and leather collars.

In the Norwick tradition of recycling the previous year’s outfit, the squad shined up the breastplates from 2015 and added new buckles for the occasion.

Saturday proved to be a busy day on Unst with the annual charity fundraising Sport Relief run and walk taking place in the morning.

The jarl squad walked the Baltasound mile after getting the party going with the wider community in the galley shed first thing.

After that it was off to Nordalea care home, Charlie Priest’s shop The Final Checkout and visiting houses in Haroldswick before the burning on the back of Norwick beach.

It’s a short procession, but one of the most stunning in Shetland even at night in torchlight.

The galley was named Sootra after a local geo, a name Smith found on a 1902 map of the isle. But the galley was saved from the flames and an old boat burned in its stead, in keeping with local tradition.