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Community / Women and girls allowed: gender restriction removed on Lerwick Up Helly Aa squads

Both the senior and junior Lerwick Up Helly Aa fire festivals will be fully open to females

Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2019. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

LERWICK Up Helly Aa squads will be able to include women when the fire festival returns in January next year.

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. 

Up Helly Aa secretary Robert Geddes pointed out that the change would be evolutionary and within squads at this stage, given that the festival is already at full capacity with 47 squads.

“We run a large and popular fire festival and have unfortunately had to turn down applications from folk wanting to start new squads, or looking to increase maximum numbers within squads, over the past few years,” he said.

“That said, there is always a turnover of guizers within squads from year to year, and by giving squads the freedom to choose we are actively allowing change to happen.”

The other criteria for participation – that guizers must be 16 or older and have resided in Shetland continuously for five years – will remain the same.

Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa – which has roots stemming back to the 1800s – has come under fierce criticism for years for excluding women from taking part in squads.

Many campaigners have long argued for offering squads the choice to allow women to take up vacant spots in squads.

Women are currently involved in organising the festivities in the halls, which are open through the night as squads put on acts and folk dance into the early hours.

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.

It also extends to the jarl squad – meaning that if a woman ends up on the organising committee Lerwick could potentially have a future female guizer jarl.

It would also, in theory, allow female family members to walk alongside the guizer jarl on their big day.

This would reflect the set-up at Up Helly Aa and fire festivals elsewhere in Shetland, which allow women in squads.

Lerwick Jarl Liam Summers and his squad during the morning procession at the 2020 Up Helly Aa. Photo: Chris Brown

The festival, which takes place on the last Tuesday in January, was last held in 2020. It is set to return in January 2023 following an absence related to the Covid pandemic.

“We felt that it was time to give squads a choice over their guizers, including allowing female participation,” Geddes added.

“Everybody is looking forward to the return of Up Helly Aa after an unprecedented two-year break because of Covid.

“The decision means the festival in Lerwick on Tuesday 31 January 2023 will have a different dimension to it, but we have no doubt that its essence and spirit will remain the same.”

Geddes added that “positive communications” had been made with hall committees regarding their opening for the 2023 Up Helly Aa.

Regarding the junior event, the committee said the Covid pandemic also allowed time to “reflect and consider the way in which the festival moves forward”.

The event – which has been held in Lerwick since 1956 – had previously only involved boys. It also has not been held since 2020.

“Therefore, the junior festival will be available with no gender restrictions,” the committee said in a statement.

“Further registration details will be announced in the future, however we can confirm that the process to elect the 2023 Junior Jarl will be open to all young people in S2 at school in Lerwick who wish to be considered.

“We would encourage young people and their parents and guardians to keep an eye out on our Facebook and Instagram platforms, for further updates including how to register interest.”

SIC depute convener Bryan Peterson. Photo: SIC

In response, Shetland Islands Council depute convener Bryan Peterson said he commended the Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee for taking the decision.

“It’s an important development for the festival and a positive and inclusive message for the community,” he said.

“I’ve had discussions with the committee about arrangements for 2023, and I expect the day’s events will follow the long-established format.

“The civic reception in the Town Hall being hosted by Andrea Manson, our first female convener, will add to the symbolism of gender restrictions being removed from squads.”

More reaction to follow…