I lived in Lerwick for the first 33 years of my life. I participated in a squad for many years as a fiddle box carrier and then in a squad. I was on the Up Helly Aa Committee for a couple of years before I left the islands to attend college.
I read with interest the letters from Dorothy O’Brian (‘Man up and support the women’; SN, 16 January 20220) and John Waters (There are more important issues of inequality; SN, 16 January 2020) regarding the continuing inequality exhibited by the exclusion of women from the Lerwick Up Helly Aas.
Dorothy is to be commended for having the courage to question the status quo over something as emotive and controversial as the gender make up of the festival. As to how important John feels Up Helly Aa is in the gender argument, all examples of inequality should be called out irrespective of how important, or unimportant, they are judged to be by others.
The two Lerwick Up Helly Aas are both outward and in your face examples of gender inequality displayed not just to Lerwick and Shetland but the entire world.
There are twelve Up Helly Aas that take place in Shetland over the winter months. Only two of them exclude women. As such both festivals should be questioned for their continued display of gender inequality.
In fact, the junior festival may very well represent the bigger problem where girls are excluded at a time when minds and attitudes are being formed in our children.
As far as calling on the male participants of these festivals to be the bringers of change; I have no doubt that there are many male participants who agree with the idea that women should be allowed to participate in all aspects of the festivals, however, I also have no doubt that there are as many who don’t want to see any change.
Making changes to any established event can create divisions amongst people with very differing and sincerely held beliefs and opinions. Those men who might support the inclusion of women in squads may feel that doing nothing might represent the lesser of two evils in the belief that the result might be a real polarisation in the community resulting ill will and resentment on both sides.
However, all too often, doing the right thing is not easy and often involves stepping on toes and making others feel uncomfortable.
Regarding asking men to not participate in next year’s festival I would respectfully suggest that could appear to some as an example of women ceding their power to influence events over to men. Better for the women of Lerwick to be in charge of their own fates.
Both correspondents also state that Up Helly Aa is a one-day event. I would suggest that the festival is much more than that. For many of the spectators it may well be a one-day event but for the participants it is another story altogether.
Rather, the last Tuesday every January only represents the culmination of the festival. The guizer jarl squad involves at least a full year of preparation and another year full of appearances at numerous events around Shetland and beyond while a regular squad might involve two squad meetings every week from October until the big day itself.
In fact, for many squad members, the camaraderie built up from being a member of a squad lasts the entire year in a small community like Lerwick. Indeed, many of the squad members I guized with found the ‘crack’ of the squad meetings far preferable to the night itself.
The festival, quite rightly, represents a source of great pride for the Shetland population and with that pride comes a sense of belonging, of being part of something special and even magical, feelings that last much longer than a day or two at the end of each January.
Should women have to miss out on this? How democratic is it that half the population of Lerwick is excluded from participating fully in this world-famous festival by virtue of their gender?