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Community / ‘A great day’: reaction as women allowed in Up Helly Aa squads

Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2016 - Photo: Austin Taylor
Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2016. Photo: Austin Taylor

THERE has been plenty of reaction to news that women and girls will now be able to fully take part in the senior and junior Lerwick Up Helly Aa events – with one campaign group saying it is a “great day for our inclusive Shetland community”.

Up Helly Aa for Aa described Wednesday’s historic development as “wonderful news”.

“We are absolutely delighted that the UHA committee has listened to the folk who want the festival to be inclusive,” a spokesperson said.

“This is a great day for our inclusive Shetland community, especially for the girls who will now be able to join in with Junior Up Helly Aa. We very much look forward to Up Helly Aa 2023.”

Fellow pressure group Reclaim the Raven added in a statement: “Everyone involved with Reclaim the Raven are delighted with this news, we are especially happy for the lasses that wanted to participate in Junior Up Helly Aa and looking forward to seeing women and girls taking part across right across the festivals.

“We hope that Up Helly Aa 2023 will be one of the best ever.”

The historic decision to relax the controversial long-standing custom was taken by the committee after members discussed how to take the event forward following a two-year Covid absence.

There will also no longer be any gender restrictions placed on the Junior Up Helly Aa, which is a separate organisation.

The decision means women, if drafted into squads, will now be able to take part in the whole event, including guizing around halls, walking in the famous torch-lit procession and burning the galley.

For the junior festival it means that girls will now be able to take part as well as boys.

Karl Johnson, who lived in Brae before moving south.

Meanwhile Queen Margaret University public sociology lecturer Karl Johnson, who is from Shetland, said it was a “such a welcome step” for not only Lerwick but the wider isles.

“The community can only benefit from greater inclusion and diversity in our social and cultural events, just as in everything else,” he said.

“Folk can now begin to heal the rifts of recent years with a positive look towards the shared future of the festival.

“Some of the local debate over UHA has gone to quite dark and concerning places, but overall we can be proud of everyone who has contributed (however big or small) to the creative, non-violent activism and informed public discussion that has led to the committee’s decision.”

Johnson, who has previously written an academic paper about the issue, said “where local and national political leadership has been notably absent for decades, it’s Shetlanders themselves who have stood up for what’s right – often at personal cost”.

“The Lerwick UHA committee has now shifted responsibility on to the squads themselves, and it will take further years to begin to see spaces open up for women to join,” he continued.

“It should be easier for girls to normalise this change by participating in the junior event though, as numbers there had been decreasing for some time. It’s vitally important now that everyone who wants to participate is made to feel safe and welcome in Up Helly Aa, just as in everyday life.”

Lindsey Manson’s dad was guizer jarl in 2006, back when she was not able to take part in his big day.

Her great, great grandfather was also the first person to hold the guizer jarl in 1906.

“I am absolutely delighted to hear the news today that Lerwick Up Helly Aa has opened up to be inclusive of everyone,” Manson said.

“I feel heartened and proud that our community has found a positive and exciting way forward in encouraging everyone to be able to choose how they want to contribute or participate in our beloved festival.

“Warmest thanks and wishes to all Up Helly Aa lovers out there. This is a brilliant day. Three cheers for Up Helly Aa.”

Campaigner Peter Hamilton, who staged a protest in January on the day the 2022 Up Helly Aa should have taken place, said the change is “very welcome, even if long overdue”.

Participation should not be restricted on gender, or indeed by any other protected characteristic, so I hope internal advice will follow on that,” he said.

“For example, a genuine community festival should not be ableist either, so there may be benefits in more aspects being considered in order that this remarkable community festival can reflect the community as a whole.”

Hamilton also suggested the idea of some of the squads merging to “make way for some new mixed diverse and women’s squads”.

“I hope most of others will now immediately welcome female guizers, as at least one tried to quietly back in the 1980s,” he said.

The campaigner also said it was “wrong to tell children in Shetland what they can and cannot become, and the pride associated with keeping both Lerwick UHA processions male-only has sent concerning messages to members of our community we should want to include”.

There are some people in the community who have taken to social media to express their view that Up Helly Aa did not need any change.

Nearly 2,000 people follow the Women for Remain the Same Facebook page, which wanted Up Helly Aa to stay in its current format.

The group said on Facebook that it was “gutted” that the committee “felt it necessary to bow to the pressure of a very vocal minority who have done everything possible to force change upon our much-loved festival, rather than leaving it to evolve from within”.

Committee secretary Robert Geddes said in the morning announcement that the “decision means the festival in Lerwick on Tuesday 31st January 2023 will have a different dimension to it, but we have no doubt that its essence and spirit will remain the same”.