Almost a year and a half ago The Shetland Times published an article ‘Jarl’s Squad youngsters have a ‘braw’ time at torchlight procession’. I commented that there were no girls involved, and that started a deluge of comments.
For so long, women’s role in UHA had been really under the press radar to an extent and largely unchanged in Lerwick (apart from drinking moving out of the hostess room) since the 1950s. It was only a matter of time until there was a groundswell of support for change.
The organisation of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa is fantastic, and it is a spectacle, but that doesn’t mean that it is perfect or that it couldn’t change and be better.
It could be as popular as a tourist attraction as Edinburgh’s Hogmanay or the Tattoo, both of which have permanent staff. I’m sure that in promoting it, Shetland’s politicians and the SIC would like it to be so, but it can’t be, until it allows gender equality.
I don’t think as a Chartered Accountant who likes choral singing and Scrabble I can be described as aggressive or an activist but I do feel passionately that lasses and women should not be discriminated against.
I am a host at Sound School and have witnessed the Young Musician of the Year sitting around the hall when her male friends were there in a squad showing their prowess with their chosen musical instrument and I thought that was wrong.
I do have lasses in 1stand then 2ndyear at school who stay in school on Lerwick UHA day whilst a lot of their male counterparts are at the street entertaining tourists or other schools with their little galley in the Junior Jarl squad.
I do notice country Up Helly Aas where whole families are in the pictures and little girls as well as boys are dressed as Vikings, and it is so lovely, and this is denied to Lerwick Jarl squad members.
It’s a sad indictment of Lerwick society that if you are female you are not allowed to guise and yet as a man you can be from anywhere, be any age or colour or creed and you are accepted into squads with open arms.
It is true that there is a problem if women also want to guise – the squads are full; and the whole thing possibly too big as it is. The committee could take this chance to sort out multiple issues at the same time. They could look at different ways of controlling the numbers of male and female guisers? Ways of ensuring the young to take over? Jim Moir (in his article in ST 5 April 2019) had a lot of interesting ideas and I am sure that if the committee wanted to, it could come up with a few more.
Should Lerwick Up Helly Aa once again try to attract the community, and if so, is there still space at the halls for tourists too? Sound school is short of hosts, is this because no one is interested in UHA or are they not interested in the hard work?
Should we pay people to work at halls? Should any shortage in hosts be made up by squad members electing for some of their friends or family to take over in a hall? Could the committee tackle this issue too?
It has been said that the activists shouting has made the committee more steadfast in leaving it as it is – but they didn’t change it either when no one pointed it out?
No one is telling them what to do, just offering opinion and I feel this is not a very magnanimous position either, and one bereft of any thought of the community, the lasses or even Shetland’s reputation, no thought of preparing for the future in a changing world.
Please, if you can’t do it for the ‘activists’, then do it for the bairns, and indeed future generations of Shetlanders.
I would call on our politicians, the SIC and the UHA committee to really do some serious thinking to sort this out. We need to be one of the top tourist destinations for winter fire festivals, up there on people’s bucket lists, and we want to be head of the New York Tartan week parade, and most of all, we all want to be able to take pride in all our heritage and festivals.
We can only do this if we move with the times and change this aspect of the festival so that it is beyond reproach and the whole excellent spectacle can be enjoyed by all.