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Community / ‘Third generation’ jarl leads most northerly Up Helly Aa

Norik jarl Ashley Spence with his wife Lauren on Norik Beach. All Photos: Desley Ritch
Norik guizer jarl Ashely Spence with his daughters Lucy and Ada on Norik beach on Saturday morning. Photo: Desley Ritch

IT IS a “humbling” moment this weekend for Norik jarl Ashley Spence leads Shetland’s most northerly Up Helly Aa.

The 34-year-old is following in family footsteps, with his grandad jarl in 1986 and his father then leading the Unst event a decade later.

Spence has 25 folk in total in his squad, with 20 men and five bairns – including his two daughters Lucy and Ada.

The main Norik Up Helly day is taking place today (Saturday) with visits around the community, although there has already been some engagements – such as a trip to the Baltasound school during the week, where the jarl works as depute head.

Speaking ahead of the weekend, Spence – a “third generation jarl” – said Norik Up Helly Aa was an event that sees the whole community pull together.

“My first jarl squad was in 1995, so it’s kind of been part of my life since I was really young,” he said.

“It’s great honour [to be jarl]. It’s made be proud to do such a job I guess, and hopefully it’ll be a lot of fun.

“It’s quite humbling in a way, there’s a lot of folk who do a lot of work for you. It’s whole community event, I think that’s really important.”

There are family links in the squad, and with his wife originally hailing from Orkney there are some members travelling up from Shetland’s neighbouring islands group.

Jarl squad members Kelvin and Ronnie Wright from Orkney enjoying their day

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The Orcadian links are also reflected in the character he is representing, as well as the galley. Spence is going by the name of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, an earl of Orkney in the 11th Century.

“He was one of the most successful earls of Orkney – he ruled a lot of Orkney and Shetland, and then over the Western Isles as well.”

The galley name is Norðrljós, which means the northern lights in old Norse. The bill head picture has been made by Spence’s auntie, and it depicts his family at the Norwick beach under the mirrie dancers.

Spence said when he was looking up the Norwegian term for Northern Lights he first came across ‘nordlys’ – which by “sheer chance” was the galley name used by his dad when he was jarl in the 1990s. Instead, he tweaked it by using old Norse.

After sheepskins proving popular at the Norik Up Helly Aa in recent years, Spence has gone back to cloaks for his squad, with grey and black the colours of choice.

Among the engagements on the schedule today includes a community event at the show shed at the Haroldswick Hall where folk can mingle with the squad.

The procession will light up at 7.30pm tonight at the Norwick beach, and afterwards the Alan Nicolson Band will be on hand to provide music at the Haroldswick Hall.

Norik is one of Shetland’s newer fire festivals, having started in the mid-1980s. Unst’s other Up Helly Aa in Uyeasound was postponed until 2025 due to bereavement.

The 2024 Norik jarl squad.

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