Features / ‘The atmosphere is always electric’: life as an Up Helly Aa jarl squad musician

“ONE thing that always amuses me is that the only squad that doesn’t have fiddle box carriers is the jarl squad,” says accordion player Peter Wood, “so when it comes to Up Helly Aa you’re carrying stuff about with you for 24 hours, and you’re out in all weathers.”

Wood knows the drill – he has performed in six Lerwick Up Helly Aas to date, as well as many country fire festivals too.

The Lerwick UHA jarl squad musicians in 2017, from left to right: Maurice Jamieson, Steven Robertson, Lewie Peterson, Peter Wood, Stewart Grains, Gavin Anderson, Micheal Mouat (back), Callum Nicolson.

It is fair to say many people’s longstanding memories of Up Helly Aa will come with music attached; From Grand old Viking centuries… rings long in the mind.


The guizer jarl and his squad of Viking comrades rightly take the limelight on the big day, which is returning in Lerwick on Tuesday after two years of Covid-enforced postponements.

But what about the Lerwick jarl squad musicians? They take less of the spotlight, but still have a vital role as they accompany the squad around town, on their visits and into the halls into the early hours to provide the backing for the Vikings’ sing-songs.

For some it will be a test of endurance, with the day tending to last 24-plus hours, although thankfully for the fingers there are plenty of breaks in between. 

Wood’s first time in a Lerwick Up Helly Aa squad as a musician was back in 2000, when Billy Goudie was jarl.

“I had played at Up Helly Aas and halls with the bands, but I’d never actually gone out as a musician – so I wasn’t very sure,” he recalled.

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“I phoned the master himself, Jimmy Burgess, because Jimmy’s been out with hundreds of jarl squads. I went and sat with him for an afternoon and spoke about what you need to know, and the basics of it.”

He said a key responsibility of a jarl squad musician is to gee up the jarl squad – after all, singing in front of audiences may not come natural to all.

“I think one of the important things that should always be stressed – if you take it on to be a musician for a jarl squad, you’ve got to be a forthgoing person,” Wood said.

Peter Wood.

“It really is your job in a way to wind the squad up, to make them the best they can be and have them all in great fettle. If you’re too shy and just sit back, they sit back.”


The weather can be a danger during the time spent outside, although the squad musicians can take a back seat during the main procession when the brass band takes the lead.

“It’s fairly long, but it’s a very enjoyable day, and you get to meet lots of people. It’s always great camaraderie and craic with the squad, and if you can build it up you get some great fun,” Wood added.

One moment which springs to mind for the acclaimed accordionist is jumping up and down mid-song at the Legion – leading to the entire jarl squad doing the same too. “How the floor didn’t collapse I have no idea,” he laughed.

He also paid tribute to Lyall Gair’s squad of 2017 for their singing prowess, which included Elvis’ Burning Love. “They brought the house down,” Wood said.


It is not just the big day itself, though, with the jarl squad musicians on hand to perform at social nights prior to Up Helly Aa.

Another musician well versed in performing with Lerwick jarl squads is fiddle player Stewart Grains.

He has also played in six, the first being for Colin Summers back in 1998.

“For me, personally, Lerwick Up Helly Aa is always a real treat to be involved in and great day and night out,” Grains said.

“And then there’s the hop day and night as well which is also brilliant fun. I very much enjoy taking part and it is certainly one of the highlights of the winter months.”

Grains explained that musicians are not always aware of who their ‘bandmates’ will be until the guizer jarl handover night.

Stewart Grains.

“It’s lightsome having sessions and learning or exchanging new tunes with other musicians whom you normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to spend time with,” the fiddle player added.


Musicians are tasked with learning a squad ‘entrance’ tune, often a brand new composition which is written for the jarl.

They also have to learn, arrange and cover the squad song which may be a medley, or one – or occasionally two – well known songs, Grains explained, while there are the Up Helly Aa staple tunes too.

“That can sometimes be a challenge but is always interesting to see how the playing and singing evolves and gels between the squad and the musicians.”

He said it is a long day, “so you do tend to look forward to your second breakfast on the Wednesday morning, having gone without any rest or sleep since the first breakfast on the Tuesday morning”.

Highlights for Grains include the impromptu tunes on board the bus between visits and halls. “The atmosphere is always electric with the crowds looking forward to seeing, and singing along with, the jarl squad.”

So how would you sum up Lerwick Up Helly Aa? Grains described it as an “excellent event for bringing everyone together for a muckle spree, plenty of music, dancing, and with lots of tunes along the way.”

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