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Community / Jarl Brian and the Sea Wolves ready to set Yell alight for Up Helly Aa

Burning excitement takes over the isle of Yell as guizer jarl Brian Spence and his squad commence the weekend celebrations of Up Helly Aa in Cullivoe

A WEEKEND full of celebrations, music and fire lies ahead for the community in Yell guided by jarl Brian Spence, a native from Cullivoe and teacher at Mossbank Primary School.

Since this is Yell the celebrations already started on Thursday morning. “The festival has changed a lot in recent times,” Brian says. “Rather than just the Friday and Saturday, we now start on Thursday because it allows us to go around the whole of Yell and include as many people as possible. It’s not really feasible to do it all in one day.”

Jarl Brian Spence with his children Lucia and David on Friday morning. Photos: Dave Donaldson

After a hearty breakfast at the Burravoe Hall, the jarl squad headed to Burravoe Primary School to visit pupils and staff.

Jarl Brian Spence with his galley Lastdragar well alight on Friday night. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Blazing a trail for the very first time, the squad caught the ferry across Yell Sound to pay a special visit to Mossbank Primary School to spend some time with the jarl’s own pupils.

Upon their return, they spent time in Mid Yell with the Stepping Out lunch club, the nursery and Junior High School, where they enjoyed some performances prepared by the bairns especially for the occasion.

“The bairns’ squads are always a highlight. Our Up Helly Aa has a school squad taking part from Cullivoe School, which is entirely unique in Shetland,” Brian explains.

The 43-year old chief guizer chose to represent the Swedish Viking Haursi Heðinn, due to his connection to Croatia, where his wife Helena is from.

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As is tradition in Cullivoe the galley is boarded by the village’s school bairns for the first parade of the day. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Catching up with Shetland News earlier this week, he says: “In 2017, archaeologists discovered a stone at Bribirska Glavica, not far from where we got married, which named part of Sweden which was under Viking rule at the time. When further researching this, I learned about some runestones in Sweden erected to memorialise some of those Vikings that left as traders or mercenaries or bodyguards.

”As he was digging deeper into this, he found one in the name of Haursi Heðinn, who had travelled to the Byzantine Empire, which then included Croatia, and returned a very rich man.

“This struck a chord with me: it reminded me that if I hadn’t travelled, I wouldn’t have met Helena and have the family we have today. I wanted to find a way to include this side of the family, so that’s why I chose Haursi Heðinn.”

He continues: “This will be my fifth time in the squad, but being jarl, there’s much more responsibility and a lot more decisions that have to be taken, and people are looking to you for guidance on which way to go, so this year has been different but fun.

“I am really so happy with the squad I’ve got – they’re many of my closest friends and family and they have all been amazing throughout the whole winter.”

The Sea Wolves are composed of 11 Vikings and three peerie ones, including the jarl’s four-year-old daughter Lucia and 21 month old son David, who will be there to support and witness this special weekend.

The squad name Sea Wolves was chosen by the jarl after the wolf-man in the 1985 Scottish movie Restless Natives. This film also inspired the name of the band he started with his friend Michael Nisbet and brother David Spence, who are both fellow squad members.

The galley Lastdragar also reflects a strong connection to the jarl and Cullivoe. He continues: “I grew up overlooking Crussa Ness, where a Dutch boat went aground in 1653 during a stormy night. The ship broke in two; half of it went down the sound and has never been found since.

“There were many rumours of all the riches aboard. The idea of something so dramatic happening right on our doorstep captured my imagination, so when I was thinking about boat names that was the only one I ever considered.”

The jarl describes his galley Lastdragar as a wolf ship rather than dragon ship.

Brian says that it is possible to see the cannons from Lastdragar using only a snorkel. As revealed on Friday morning, the wolf on the squad’s shield was also reproduced on the head of the galley, “so this year, rather than a dragon ship it is more of a wolf ship.”

This morning (Friday), after a breakfast prepared by the resident gourmet chef at Burravoe Hall, the jarl squad began the day by carrying the galley to meet the school and pre-school bairns at Moarfield Garage. The galley, full of bairns, was then accompanied to Cullivoe Primary School.

When thinking over the last few days of preparing for the big celebration, the jarl reflects: “I’m completely awestruck by how much work goes into these few days. Everybody is desperate to do something to help, from making fancies and sandwiches to manoeuvring the galley and preparing the torches. It’s an amazing thing to be part of: the community just drives the whole thing.”

The procession will set off from the hall in Cullivoe at 7.30pm, moving towards the marina for the galley burning. This will be followed by music and dancing to the sounds of Leeshinat. There are many social events in store right through to the Sunday.

As the community gets all fired up for the procession and performances, the jarl continues: “It feels like Christmas in some ways, where everybody is preparing their act in secret and waiting to exchange gifts with others.

“I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that my name will be added to the list of jarls. “There are names on that list of people that I have never met, and some of them that have passed away before I was born, but I’ve heard so many stories about all those names and it’s a tremendous honour to be part of it.”

Erin Rizzato Devlin

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