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Community / Interest rekindled in idea of wider Viking festival

Amenity Trust chief questions if more can be done to create a ‘week-long reason to come’ to Shetland for the Lerwick Up Helly Aa

The 2020 Lerwick Up Helly Aa. Photo: Chris Brown

THE IDEA of a bespoke, complementary festival being held around Lerwick Up Helly Aa to give visitors a greater Viking-themed experience has been raised locally again – with more businesses encouraged to hold events in the future to tie into the fire festival.

There is a feeling within Shetland Amenity Trust, which already runs other annual events like Shetland Boat Week and the nature festival, said that the isles are “missing a trick” by not plugging its Viking offer more.

David Nicol, managing director of the NB Communication, the company that holds the Promote Shetland contract, said in response that “ideally we’d like to attract visitors to arrive earlier, leave later and do much more while they are here”.

However, he said “whether this might develop into a ‘fringe’ festival is open for discussion, but obviously it would need to complement the main event of Up Helly Aa and not detract from it in any way”.

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa continues to be a draw for tourists from across the globe, and next year a cruise ship is set to call into the town especially for the big day.

The rural Up Helly Aas bring in less visitors, but they still form a key part of the fire festival season.

York, for example, has a Viking centre which acts as a museum and a visitor attraction, and while the Lerwick galley shed is open in the summer, there is no wider, specific attraction exploring Shetland’s Viking heritage.

Shetland Amenity Trust chief executive Mat Roberts said that a type of festival is the “obvious thing to do when you’ve already got a large number of people coming to Shetland for what is effectively a private event”.

“Is there something we could do which could create more of a week-long reason to come?” he said.

The organisation’s head of engagement Sandy Middleton stressed that anything would have to be done in partnership with other organisations, and would require funding.

If anything ever came to fruition, it would have to be implemented “very gently, very slowly and very definitely with everybody’s agreement”, Roberts added, saying that the big question would be whether there was a desire to make the Lerwick festival more ‘public’.

The amenity trust has relevant experience in the area after managing the recent four-year, EU-funded Follow The Vikings international roadshow, which aimed to educate and entertain people on Europe’s Viking heritage.

There are an increasing number of Up Helly Aa off-shoot events which take place around the last Tuesday in January, such as the food and drink market in Mareel and traditional music events during the day itself.

Dance bands from the mainland booked to perform at through the night at Up Helly Aa halls also play gigs at pubs, while more contemporary music can also be found ringing through Lerwick in the weekend prior.

Promote Shetland boss Nicol, meanwhile, encouraged businesses and organisations to put on more events to tie into Lerwick Up Helly Aa.

The service – which is funded by Shetland Islands Council – broadcasts a live stream of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa to the world, while it also hosts a website with information about all of the fire festivals.

“Up Helly Aa attracts a growing number of visitors every year and provides a significant boost to the tourism industry in the middle of the low season,” Nicol said.

“Our Promote Shetland team has been working with Visit Scotland and the Shetland Tourism Association to explore opportunities to enhance the experience for visitors who come here for Up Helly Aa.

“It is very encouraging to see an organic growth in events and activities in the days before and after the Lerwick festival such as the Shetland Food and Drink event at Mareel and the opening of Sumburgh Head Lighthouse.

“We are keen to encourage more businesses and other bodies to consider whether they can do anything else to tie in with Up Helly Aa in future years. Whether this might develop into a ‘fringe’ festival is open for discussion, but obviously it would need to complement the main event of Up Helly Aa and not detract from it in any way.”

Nicol said “the more events that are available, the better we can all promote Shetland as a place worth visiting for a longer mid-winter break”.

“It is also worth highlighting that we cover the entire season of fire festivals, not just Lerwick,” he added.

“We are keen to attract people to visit for our rural Up Helly Aas too and this year have a national journalist visiting the Uyeasound event for the first time.”

His views were echoed by local VisitScotland manager Steve Mathieson, who said: “The event is growing in popularity with visitors coming each year so there is a good case for encouraging businesses to think about what they can do to provide an incentive for visitors to stay longer, which may involve organic growth or the idea of a bespoke festival.”

It is unclear, meanwhile, whether national and international coverage of the ongoing gender equality debate around Lerwick Up Helly Aa will affect visitor numbers in any way – with the Guardian, the BBC and the Scotsman all running stories and comment last week highlighting the issue.

In recent days a new Facebook page calling for the Lerwick Up Helly Aa to ‘remain the same’ launched. It said it is a “page for any female or male, young or old who has an understanding and passion for Up Helly Aa in its present form”.

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee was approached for comment on the festival idea, but no response was received.