IN SOME ways, it felt like this weekend’s Althing debate had already started weeks before the Staney Hill Hall doors even opened.
An announcement that the event was taking place on Saturday (19 March) in Lerwick prompted hundreds of comments, often fiery, on the Shetland News Facebook page.
The motion presented at Staney Hill to around 60 folk was a seemingly simple, yet hotly contested one: ‘It’s time gender equality reached Lerwick Up Helly Aa’.
An initial straw poll showed 18 hands for the motion, 10 against and five unsure, with some undecided about being undecided.
The night ended up being an engrossing and at times heated affair, with passion, zeal and humour present throughout.
Speaking for the motion were Helen Robertson and Ryan Taylor, while Erik Moncrieff and Emma Williamson – standing in for Sandra Summers – were on the ‘no’ side.
Robertson opened with a well-prepared speech, pointing to the “political, historical, legal and geographical reasons” why females should be allowed to take part in the Lerwick fire festival.
“The status quo can only be maintained by keeping up an illusion that lasses and women don’t want to be in squads,” Robertson opined, nodding to the importance of “free choice”.
She also said the issue aligns Shetland with countries with dubious equality records and threatens to shroud the isles in “embarrassment” as the world watches on.
Robertson also spoke passionately about the junior squad not allowing girls into the fray. “It’s time we work together as a community” to bring change, she concluded.
Opposing first was Erik Moncrieff, who stated that he was not a Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee member, but more of an “insider” who is involved in making galleys and props.
While he admitted he doesn’t see why girls can’t be involved in the junior squad, Moncrieff’s argument hinged on size and legal issues. “Even if the committee wanted to change it they can’t, because of capacity,” he said.
Moncrieff gave an insight into the organisation of the event, which is effectively a private club with no constitution and no public funding, he said.
The speaker pointed to the Equality Act 2010, which says private clubs are entitled to restrict membership on a characteristic, such as sex.
He argued that incremental change to allow women into Up Helly Aa would effectively be illegal, with it having to be all or nothing.
“There’s no capacity, so it’s never going to happen. If it could be changed, I would still be against it,” Moncrieff said, pointing to upholding the tradition of the committee’s organisation and customs.
Shetland Times reporter Ryan Taylor followed by stating tradition can be a “dangerous thing”.
He juggled wit (women having the “necessary equipment” means men wouldn’t need to cross-dress anymore) and reason, explaining the definition of equality.
Taylor said Up Helly Aa is too new of a festival to reflect true Viking history – “so whose tradition are we protecting?”
He reflected on his time spent questioning emotional Guizer Jarls about their rousing experience. “Women won’t get the same fulfilment serving soup and bannocks,” Taylor claimed.
He praised country Up Helly Aas, with last year’s tradition-breaking South Mainland Up Helly Aa guizer jarl Lesley Simpson watching on.
Emma Williamson finished things off by explaining she was a third generation hall hostess.
“I’m very, very proud to be part of Up Helly Aa,” she said, “and I do not feel that I am a lesser person or subordinate to men.”
There’s 1,500 guests who attend the numerous private halls, she said, so “what’s so wrong with it that they want to go year in, year out?”
“If you don’t like how Up Helly Aa is run, form your own one,” she suggested.
Williamson gained some support in the room when she said she felt “patronised” by the other side’s remarks about hosting.
She felt her young daughter would much rather help host than be stuck in the “back of a van with Dad” and drunk men while her friends were in a hall.
“I can feel myself getting worked up,” Williamson admitted, and stated that while rural Up Helly Aas work well, “we need to leave the Lerwick one as it is.”
When the floor opened up to the audience, one woman asked if adding females to the event would start in stages, or whether the “floodgates would open”.
Moncrieff replied by saying the law was clear – and if there was demand, there would have been a vote by now.
People would be “selfish” and vote against allowing women in if it meant their place in a squad was secured, he added.
One audience member meanwhile said that allowing women in wouldn’t instantly double the size of Up Helly Aa – it would just mean females are “eligible”.
Another man agreed and suggested the real problem is a mix of “male chauvinism” and “female subservience”.
The majority of remarks from the audience were in support of the motion, with young girls’ rights called into question, while one onlooker said “ordinary people” will encourage change, not the Up Helly Aa committee.
Councillor Jonathan Wills asked why a “private party” leads to police deployment and road closures, adding that there is “quite a lot of public money” spent on the festival.
A teenage woman said confidence of girls is being continually knocked; “the only difference between men and women is what’s between their legs,” she said.
Emma Williamson responded by claiming she wasn’t saying girls shouldn’t get the opportunity to be in squads, with large swathes of the audience – in rather pantomime fashion – shouting back to the contrary.
Lesley Simpson meanwhile piped up to ask where she should send her Lerwick squad application to, with Moncrieff later suggesting there could be a hamefarin style Up Helly Aa event held in the summer that featured both men and women.
Another audience member said public money had been used to build the St Sunniva Street galley shed and as such, Up Helly Aa should be “open to everyone”.
One young man said he would be happy to give up a place in a squad to let a woman in, with Williamson ultimately retorting by saying too many people are getting their “knickers in a twist about a piss-up”.
Summing up for the motion’s opponents was Erik Moncrieff, who said “practicalities” rather than tradition is why women aren’t involved.
He suggested that there are “a hell of a lot of other things on the planet” that needed sorted out first when it comes to injustice.
Helen Robertson concluded for the supporters of the motion by saying “everything can change” – especially for the better.
“I’ve heard that there are some prospective jarls that want change, so I think it will come. But I won’t put money on when,” she said.
A final poll revealed that 27 were in favour of the motion, 15 against and five were undecided, reaffirming that there is most definitely an appetite for gender equality in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa.