GENTLE snow flurries over this morning provided a picture-perfect Lerwick and the icing on the cake for 100th jarl John Nicolson and his Slantigarth squad.
Among those awaiting the arrival of the Jarl Squad at the Legion this morning was Jenny Patch, who had come all the way from Alaska after being inspired by watching the BBC TV series Shetland.
She said: “After watching the first episode of Shetland, I googled Up Helly Aa to find out what it was about. Soon after that I bought my ticket with Haggis Tours, went into work and told my boss I was retiring!”
Patch said she was delighted by all the “beard candy” on show, adding that she had tickets for the Town Hall tonight and that “…these boys just don’t know what’s coming!”
The striking green and white galley (a nod to the Jarl’s life-long love of Celtic FC and named after the Jarl’s daughter and his late mother) elicited admiring noises from the crowd, but even this was eclipsed by the arrival of the Slantigarth squad themselves.
This year’s suits are a real design triumph, seamlessly combining Viking aplomb with real artistry. The 63-strong squad are quite a sight to behold in their emerald green kirtles and wooden breastplates.
Their shields and helmets, created by local artist Dirk Robertson, are stunningly intricate and need to be seen up close to be fully appreciated. The emerald gems set into the squad’s helmets are shaped liked dragons’ eyes and appear to wink in the winter light.
The Jarl himself, John Nicolson, looked every inch the proud Viking warrior in black and white (another football reference, this time to Lerwick Spurs) with green detail on the sleeves of his kirtle to tone in with the rest of his squad.
As usual, the pre-school and primary children of Lerwick lined the streets. What did the young visitors think of this year’s Jarl Squad?
Sound pupil Declan Mackay (Primary 1) said he was “very happy” about today. He was keen to show off the galley boat he and his classmates had created especially for the Specsavers’ window display. The attire of the Jarl squad received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Declan and his classmates with one boy noting: “It’s good that they’ve got fur on their backs in this cold weather.”
It was then on to the Town Hall for the civic reception, where the Jarl Squad musicians warmed up the audience with some excellent tunes. This was followed by the entry of the Jarl Squad who sung the Up Helly Aa song, followed by a rousing rendition of nineties Britpop anthem Sit Down.
Convenor Malcolm Bell opened proceedings, expressing his hope that self-employed painter Jarl John Nicolson would not be “overcome with emulsion” on his special day, and emphasising the strong Up Helly Aa family tradition running through the Jarl’s family (John Nicolson is following in the footsteps of his father and two older brothers). Bell added: “Such a strong family representation has never occurred in the past and is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.”
After this, Jarl John Nicolson took the floor. “Up Helly Aa means a lot to me and my family”, he said, reflecting on some of his earliest memories of the festival before going on to express his gratitude to everyone who had supported him in getting ready for the big day.
Following a break for refreshments, the squad were ready to embark upon a busy afternoon of engagements around town. After a wonderful start to the day, the mood was buoyant.