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Jarl praises ‘tremendous’ Up Helly Aa

Faroese prime minister Aksel Johannesen exploring his Viking roots with guizer jarl Lyall Gair.

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THERE were blustery winds and bouts of drizzly rain on a chilly Tuesday morning as this year’s guizer jarl Lyall Gair walked his men through the streets of Lerwick.

Things were a little bit cosier inside Mareel as the 58-strong jarl squad attended the traditional civic reception to meet Shetland council members, local dignitaries, business people and other prominent guests – including the Faroese prime minister Aksel Johannesen.

Going against tradition, however, was the location, with the usual Town Hall out of action as its undergoes critical refurbishment.

There was a relaxed air to the event as guests took to their seats in the auditorium, with the jarl squad band’s guitarist Steven Robertson performing his amusing comedy cover No A Fast Car. Faroe PM, no doubt, looking on in confused fashion.

The jarl squad didn’t take long to follow, with the men taking their seats on stage in full voice, of course, with helpers dishing out drinks to the thirsty Vikings.

Wearing an outfit which included brown leather boots, chainmail and sheepskin, the guizer’s shields centred on an image of a wolf.

The costume, which also featured a helmet which covered most of the face, weighed a massive three and half stone in total.

Guizer Jarl Lyall Gair and his squad during the morning parade - all photos: Austin Taylor

Gair – representing Sweyn ‘Forkbeard’ Haraldsson – followed his troops into the auditorium before rallying them through three songs, including the traditional Up Helly Aa ditty and a cover of Elvis Presley’s Burning Love, with the band donning sunglasses in honour of the man himself.

Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell opened the speeches by referring to the reception’s move to Mareel. “We were told it would be worth every penny one day,” he joked, suggesting that statement has now been proven true.

Bell said a Scottish Government minister had been scheduled to attend the reception, but had pulled out at the last minute. He didn’t miss the opportunity to take a light-hearted jab at the government’s decreasing core funding for the council.

The convener also brought out more laughs when he quipped about “passing ships” when mentioning the visit of Johannesen, referring to Symril Line’s passenger ferry Norröna, which often journeys near Shetland’s shores.

The jarl's squad at the Market Cross during the proclaiming of the bill.

Bell gave Gair and his squad the freedom of Lerwick for the next 24 hours, but as he is a joiner, the councillor said he hoped “any damage would be made good” by the jarl.

As tradition, Bell, Gair and Shetland’s lord lieutenant Bobby Hunter toasted twin town Malloy, in Norway, while the crowd – drinks in hand – readily copied the gesture too.

Gair then took to the microphone to pay tribute to his squad and band, although he couldn’t resist a jab at the council.

He said the first time he visited Mareel was to see the 2013 film White House Down, but it was unusual, the jarl said, because the “sequel was right next door”.

The jarl said the “beauty of Up Helly Aa is that everyone mucks in”, from those hosting halls to the committee.

He joked that he picked Haraldsson as his Viking alter-ego because he was a “mean person” who had engaged in plenty of “epic battles”.

Gair explained that his squad started in 2004 and has had both “good and bad” years, while he also noted his penchant for travelling the globe with the Scottish football team’s Tartan Army.

He revealed the amount of work that went into creating the squad’s shields, which were completed some months ago in September.

Gair concluded that it was “absolutely tremendous” to be involved in Up Helly Aa, a festival which he thinks is “going from strength to strength”.

There was time for another tune before Gair and his men left Mareel to continue their adventures around Lerwick, with schools and care homes on the agenda before the evening’s torchlight procession and the night’s festivities.

The traditional squad photo in the galley Falcon at the Bressay slip.