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Community / Bressay Up Helly Aa: proud to be different

Our correspondent Davie Gardner spins an epic tale of good humoured pillaging and community as the island’s biggest social event gets underway

There are several things unique, or perhaps different, about Bressay Up Helly Aa.

Firstly, it’s arguably one of Shetland’s oldest Up Helly Aas, with its roots – albeit those being somewhat vague – stretching back to the early 1930s, when the island’s first galley – simply a painted Shetland model boat with a head and tail attached – was built at the local fish processing factory.

Jarl Laurence Robertson with his sons Cole and Levi and partner Emma Riise on Friday morning. All photos: Davie Gardner
Jarl Laurence Robertson. All photos: Davie Gardner

However, that event proved to be a short-lived affair with no further festivals taking place after 1934 due to the fact the local hall – a kirk hall at the time – refused permission for it to be used for that purpose after that date.

Fast forward to 1962 and the festival was reborn, following an earlier public meeting. A proper galley was built by its new committee, with the local minister – the Reverend J. Lennie Matches – acting as their first guizer jarl.

He was perhaps an unusual choice for such a role, with this certainly representing a significant shift in community or even religious thinking, given the reason for the original event’s demise.

It could also be said that this was a somewhat different ‘take’ on the current understanding of the phrase regarding giving something the ‘ministerial seal of approval’.  Since then, the Bressay Up Helly Aa has taken place on an annual basis.

The Bressay Vikings on their way to Lerwick

However, two other elements of the festival are perhaps also a bit different to other similar events. The original galley built for the 1962 festival still retains pride of place as the centrepiece of the event, it not being ceremoniously burned at the end of the annual torchlit procession.

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The next generation Vikings.

More usually, a boat – again with a head, tail and mast affixed – is burned, perhaps hinting back, with more than a whiff of significance, to the original event and ‘galley’ back in the 1930s.

However, setting that tradition aside, a bespoke galley has been built for this year’s event.

Finally, only one local hall is available to host squads and the post-procession revelry, making it one of Shetland’s smaller fire festivals.

Partytime in Bressay.

Nevertheless, the Bressay Up Helly Aa retains pride of place as perhaps the biggest and most enjoyable social occasion in the community each year.

Leading the event this year is guizer jarl Laurence Robertson (32) – an ex-Bressay resident, now living in Lerwick with his partner Emma Riise and their two sons, Cole (13) and Levi (9), both of whom are in the squad with him, as is his father Jimmy and brother Jamie along with Jamie’s two sons Saul and Harper.

Laurence – who by day is a welding foreman at the Malakoff in Lerwick – has, for this weekend, chosen to transform himself into Kolbeinn Vikingsson, a Viking warrior and adventurer, whose saga tells us he landed with his men on the east side of Bressay sometime during the 9th century, creating a settlement for themselves there.

Following further blood-lusting and pillaging across the island Vikingsson was ultimately slain in battle with, as legend has it, his body being buried on the hill of Cruester on the island, where an ancient standing stone now marks his grave.

Thankfully Laurence’s intentions for his own squad of Vikings are much more friendly with – currently at least – no reign of terror included in their plans.

Instead, the 23 adults and nine children kicked off their frantic weekend on Thursday night at a good humoured and socially amenable torch-steeping session, with an initial dram or two to hand as well of course – purely to toast their good luck I was assured.

Visiting Bell’s Brae Primary School.

Here the local ‘bill’ (anonymously written apparently) with its stunning bill head painted by local artist Rozanne Perdu, was also unveiled for the first time, containing its usual barbed, satirical comment and fun-pulling/leg-pulling wit – it duly being signed by the jarl on the night.

“I knew I’d have the p**s taken out of me on this,” laughs Laurence while reading its content. Maybe he’s just putting a brave face on it – as no doubt other members of the community who find themselves featuring on it will also be forced to do once it’s publicly displayed for all to see.

Attired in teal-coloured kirtles, with intricate black leather bodywork and breastplates, reindeer skins and helmets, while roaring in fairly menacing fashion and brandishing axes, swords and shields, the squad emerge in true Viking fashion out of the early morning gloom, not so much to threaten, maim and plunder on this occasion, but simply to commence their Up Helly Aa day programme of visits and events.

The theme running through the squad this year is of the mythological Norse creature Fenrir, an antagonistic being who adopts the form of a monstrous wolf. His image appears on the squads shields and axes, while the galley also carries his name.

In terms of time commitment, the squad’s striking visual impact is the result of 16 months of effort and hard work, most of this being undertaken by the squad themselves.

The focus of their first decidedly non-violent ‘raid’ of the day is the local Speldiburn Café, where the only thing pillaged is a gut-filling feast of bacon and sassermaet, together with other non-Viking breakfast style delicacies – all willingly served up to them, thus reducing the need for any pillaging.

They ravenously descend on this with a rousing rendition of the Up Helly Aa song followed by an uplifting, but certainly not bloodcurdling, take on Status Quo and John Fogerty’s classic song Rocking All Over the World – the squad’s chosen anthem for the weekend.

Bellowing out the lyrics ‘Here we are, here we are and here we go…..’ seems appropriate given the Jarl and his squad’s long wait for this moment, together with the busy day, night and weekend now ahead of them.

Other Bressay-based squad duties are set to include official photo sessions, a visit to the local hotel (including more feasting and no doubt some drinking at lunchtime), a trip to the local shop and also the community hall for an afternoon get-together in the company of the island’s senior citizens and other local residents – all ahead of the torchlit procession, galley burning and, of course, the hall with squads and dancing at night.

Over and above this the squad are also making a morning visits outside the island to Bell’s Brae Primary School (where the Bressay bairns themselves attend) and Sound Primary (where all the younger members of the jarl squad go to school) before returning to the isle for the remainder of the day.

Then there’s more fire festival related revelry on Saturday ahead of Hop Night, again in the local hall, with the ever-popular First Foot Soldiers providing the music.

The jarl signing the bill on Thursday evening.

On Sunday afternoon the squad reconvene for the final time, this time in the Maryfield House Hotel on Bressay, for the traditional beard and head shaving in aid of charity.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a busy day and weekend for sure,” snarls Jarl Kolbeinn Vikingsson as he unceremoniously bites into a sassermaet roll during his Friday morning breakfast.

In reality, he’s far more cheery, pleasant and amenable than that, saying: “I’ve served fifteen years on the local committee to get to this point, and I’ve been planning for, working on and looking forward to this for ages, so now we’re all going to enjoy ourselves for sure.

“It’s great to have family members and friends involved too, plus we’ve got relations up fae Edinburgh for the weekend as well. Noo we joost have to hope the weather holds – well, until we get to the hall at night at least.”

Isn’t he a bit disappointed that – especially after all the work on the suits and so forth that they’ve done, and inevitably the material costs that go along with that – there’s actually only one hall to visit and show off their handiwork in?

“No at all,” he immediately replies. “I go out in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa too and visit plenty of halls for dat in other squads. So actually, joost having wan hall to visit here can be a real bonus.

“Everybody’s together in the wan place, so once you do your bit wie the squad you stay in the hall for the rest of the night and get a good chance to settle in and have time to catch up wie everybody and simply enjoy yourselves. You dunna need to rush aff again to get to the next hall, so it’s great in dat way.”

So, it’s clear that, as the old saying goes, ‘size isn’t everything’ and that small(er) though it may be – at least when compared with some other similar events around Shetland – Bressay Up Helly Aa nevertheless still ‘packs a punch’ and has a huge social impact on its home island and, thus, what it may lack in size is more than amply made up for with lashings of commitment, community spirit and downright good old fashioned fun.

Skål to all concerned and may all their plunders be bountiful!

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