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Community / First fire festival of the season gets underway in Scalloway

John Robert (JR) Umphray said it is an ‘honour’ to be guizer jarl as he follows in his father’s footsteps

SHETLAND’s fire festival season kicked off this morning (Friday) in Scalloway ahead of a busy weekend in the area.

This year’s Scalloway Fire Festival guizer jarl John Robert (JR) Umphray said it is an “honour” to lead the event as he follows in the footsteps of his dad, who held the role in 2000.

His squad features more than 40 folk – including 16 bairns, as young as two years old – whilst there are five musicians in tow too. It is fair to say it is a family affair, with his two sons Lewis and Mackie, dad, brother and his children, uncle and brother-in-law all part of the action.

One of their first engagements was at UHI Shetland’s Scalloway campus where they fuelled up in the restaurant after a sing-song in front of staff.

Other visits in the itinerary today include schools and a senior citizens party in the Scalloway Boating Club.

Scalloway jarl John Robert Umphray and his squad of Vikings making a great entry at the fisheries college, now part of UHI Shetland. Photo: Shetland News

A film crew is also up in Shetland to document the day for Channel 5, having already been in the isles last year to capture footage of the preparations – as well as the jarl’s wife’s squad.

Umphray, 42, is taking on the character of Harald Greycloak, a king of Norway. The workboat skipper with Scottish Sea Farms – who is from Scalloway but now lives in Trondra – picked the name as his suit, rather appropriately, features a grey cloak.

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Elsewhere on the suit the kirtles feature a burgundy red colour, with the squad wearing green/grey trousers underneath.

The squad members have green cloaks with a grey knitted raven emblem, with the jarl’s the opposite – grey with the design in green.

The metalwork meanwhile, has a historic feel. “I didn’t want any stainless steel or shiny stuff, so we’ve deliberately gone through making the metal look old-age,” Umphray said. “The metalwork on the helmets and the axe heads are kind of rustic looking.”

The axe handles have had a brush with a blowtorch to darken the wood, and the shield has been burned too.

The furthest travelled squad member has come from Glasgow, with another from Inverness and a few heading up from Orkney too.

The galley this year takes inspiration from Fetlar, where the jarl’s wife Dawn is hails from. It is called Longariva, named after a place on the island.

“It’s a spot on the banks at Fetlar – my wife is from Fetlar, and she got a really old map of Fetlar from her dad before he passed away,” Umphray said.

2024 Scalloway Guizer Jarl John Robert Umphray. Photo: Shetland News

He added that the east side of Fetlar is thought to be one of the first places where Vikings arrived in Shetland many centuries ago.

Umphray’s squad has picked Clearwater Creedence Revival’s Bad Moon Rising as their song – mainly because “everyone thinks it’s a decent song, and it’s quite easy to sing”.

The jarl reckons he has been involved in nearly 30 Scalloway Fire Festivals to date – “I’ve never missed a year” – with his journey starting as a fiddlebox carrier in the mid-1990s.

He has been waiting since 2017 for his big day, with the Covid pandemic adding on a delay.

So how does it feel to be following in his dad’s footsteps? “It certainly does mean a lot, seeing him do it, and getting the chance [to do it myself],” Umphray said ahead of the big day.

“There’s five ex-jarls in the squad – they’ve all been a good help to me, guys you can go to for a bit of advice. It’s an honour to be able to do it.

“I have to thank the squad for giving me the opportunity to do it. I’m really looking forward to it.”

With around 180 guizers in total set to take part in the evening procession and night-time revelry in the halls across Scalloway, Burra and Tingwall, the jarl hoped everyone involved will enjoy themselves tonight and on the hop day tomorrow too.

“I wish everybody a successful fire festival,” Umphray said, “and just hope everybody has a good weekend”.

The procession will light up at Lovers Lane in Scalloway at 7pm, ending with the galley burning at Port Arthur and a fireworks display. There is to be no parking on the route, and New Road, Main Street and Port Arthur Road will be closed to all traffic from 6.45pm until crowds disperse.

There will be car parking at the school, the swimming pool and Blacksness Pier. There will be parking for blue badge holders at the Port Arthur marina gates.

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