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Community / Long weekend ahead for Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty and his hardy Vikings

Up Helly Aa correspondent Davie Gardner celebrates SMUHA, the latest addition to Shetland’s fire festivals

Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty, his wife Vicki and their three children Willum (7), Annie (4) and Georgie (2) on Friday morning. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

“IT’S REALLY very humbling,” says Jarl Leigh Smith in a quiet, reflective, almost emotional moment, immediately ahead of this year’s South Mainland Up Helly Aa (SMUHA).

He’s referring to not only the privilege of fulfilling that hugely important role as the figurehead of the festival itself but, equally, to the effort put in by so many folk from across the local community to make events such as these happen for people like him.

“It’s incredible,” he adds. “There’s so many folk involved – all totally voluntary – all pulling together for you and for the festival tae succeed in general. As I say, it’s all incredibly humbling.”

It’s a rare moment of relaxation and introspection for Dunrossness resident Leigh – who originally hails from nearby Scousburgh – ahead of a hectic and no doubt often boisterous weekend for him and his 56 strong squad. The squad, comprising 43 adults and 16 children, will undertake visits to various schools throughout the district and a care home, plus carrying out various other public engagements stretching between Sumburgh and Lerwick during the day.

The squad visiting Ness Engineering where the jarl is a company director. Photo: MalcolmYounger

This will include participating in a mini-procession and galley burning with the Dunrossness Primary School children in the early afternoon.

Of course, this will also, by necessity, be punctuated by the occasional stop-off for some sustenance-related Viking feasting at various points during the day.

Come evening, Leigh will lead his own squad, plus 24 others, in the 450-plus person strong torchlit procession, along the Scousburgh road from Spiggie to the Scousburgh Sands for the ritualistic burning of the galley, culminating in its final blaze of glory at sea there. Then it’s onward to visit five local halls throughout the night, stretching from Gulberwick in the north of the district to the Ness Boating Club at Sumburgh at its southernmost extremity.

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This will be followed by ‘Hop Day’ on Saturday – with visits to the local hotel at Sumburgh and local clubs, ahead of the hop dance in the Cunningsburgh Hall later that evening. And if all that wasn’t enough already there will be further visits to local clubs on Sunday too.

The much-coined term ‘hardy Vikings’ will most certainly need to apply this weekend!

The SMUHA district incorporates the five main centres of population in the area, being Dunrossness, Bigton & Levenwick, Cunningsburgh & Fladdabister, Sandwick & Hoswick and Gulberwick & Quarff. Each area appoints a jarl on a five yearly rotation – with Leigh representing Dunrossness this time around.

A family and community affair

Early morning feasting

For Leigh it’s a family affair as well as a community related one with his wife Vicki and three children Willum (7), Annie (4) and two-year-old daughter Georgie in the squad with him, together with his mother Carolyn and father Rodney, plus siblings Hayley, Brendon, Darron and Steven, along with their wives, partners and families.

Add to this a healthy troupe of other friends and relatives – some of whom have travelled from as far afield as Bali and The Hague to be here today – and, all in all, you have the makings of a very convivial community get-together for sure.

As jarl Leigh will adopt a Viking persona for the day/weekend. He has chosen to represent Thorfinn ‘The Mighty’ Sigurdsson, a powerful 9th century Viking warrior who, through his links to the Scottish throne, was granted the title of Jarl of Caithness and Sutherland, thus giving him a tentative foothold in Orkney and Shetland as well.

SMUHA artwork by Dirk Robertson

But all that’s yet to come. For now, it’s early Friday morning and the squad are assembling for breakfast at the Ness Boating Club at the southernmost tip of the islands, where a legion of bacon and sassermeat rolls is unable to offer much resistance, being dealt with in typically brutal fashion.

In an area already famed for its Viking connections, we’re treated to a veritable clash of time periods and cultures as our band of marauding Vikings set foot on land – a mere stone throw from the historically significant Jarlshof site – to the sound of modern day air traffic from the equally nearby Sumburgh Airport.

The squad’s early morning arrival at the Boating Club is a visually striking one, with the members dressed in vivid blue kirtles and red cloaks, and the jarl himself alternating in a red kirtle with a blue cloak.

Leigh tells me that the squads’ colours are personally significant to him given they are the colours of the two football teams from the area that he’s played for in the past and remain very close to his heart – Ness Utd (red/ white and black) and Southend Utd (blue and white) – in addition to also being the company colours of Ness Engineering, the local firm for which he acts as a company director.

Augmenting the colourful suits, the squad also wear eye-catching brown leather body armour, brandish replica 8th century Viking axes and carry shields, all intricately embellished with themed motifs designed by local artist Dirk Robertson. The suit is topped off with brown leather helmets to match the body armour, along with calf-length brown leather boots.

A special range of jarl squad jewellery has also been created thanks to local jeweller Karlin Anderson, which will also be on sale to the general public through her business in Hoswick.

Leigh tells me he arrived at the main theme for the squad – a wolf motif – in a somewhat unusual manner. It harks back to the time when his young son Willum – who Leigh tells me is ‘Up Helly Aa mad’ – first attended nursery. Apparently, his coat peg there was marked by a wolf sticker, so he became known to his family as ‘Willum the Wolf’ – so the theme arises from there, with the Norse style design also incorporating an Odin god mask among other intricacies.

“I’ve been thinking constantly about the design since joining the committee in 2016 and it’s been a full years’ work to get it to this stage, so hopefully it looks good and it’s all been worth it,” Leigh tells me. Few will disagree I suspect.


Jarl son Willum ‘The Wolf’ Smith

Leigh’s own SMUHA roots go back further than his appointment to the committee in 2016 however, or indeed even the festivals inaugural year in 2010 – it being the most recent addition to the local Up Helly Aa calendar.

In fact, they actually stretch back to the now almost legendary, virtually forgotten, hugely informal ‘Troswick Up Helly Aa’ held for three years back in the mid 1980s, organised by Ian Smith of Troswick, where Leigh’s great grandfather Willie Manson from Lunabist acted as ‘guizer jarl’ in 1985. But for more on that story and photos – and much more besides – you’ll have to buy the SMUHA programme.

During his time on the committee Leigh has acted as one of the galley boys, building the galley, and now the result of his (and others) dedicated work is currently being admired outside the boating club, being a smart longship called Skorarborg – the old Norse name for Scousburgh.

Again, primarily painted in the red, white, gold and black colours of Ness Utd and Ness Engineering, with its distinctive dragon’s head copied from a stone carving found at the historical Jarlshof site in Sumburgh, the vessel will suffer a fiery demise at Scousburgh Sands later this evening.

And it’s also his association with the SMUHA galley that Leigh turns too when I ask him what he’s looking forward to most this weekend? That association has allowed him to make regular visits to schools at several of the festivals since becoming a galley boy and this, he believes, will form one of his possibly many highlights during the day.

“The singing at the schools when we’re there is always a highlight,” he smiles. “They just sing so loud! It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Every year it gets me, so that will be really special for sure.”

Another highlight he reckons will be at the point in the procession when the 450 or so torchbearers surround the galley nearing the end of the procession – a first for SMHUA this year. “That’s going to be an amazing sight from the galley too,” he says.

SMUHA group photo by Malcolm Younger

Then, just before they rush off to their first visitation of the day, Leigh assures me that the often muted ‘competitiveness’ between local Up Helly Aas is a complete myth, largely perpetuated, he believes, by “folk who are not actually involved.”

“Dat couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. “I’ve had tremendous support from all the others – Lerwick, Scalloway, Delting and so forth. In fact, SMUHA itself has had great support from them all too, right fae the outset. We’re like an Up Helly Aa community. Everybody is really willing to help and make your event and your year a success.”

And with that, plus an umpteenth rendition of the Up Helly Aa song and a distinctly non-Viking like, but nevertheless rousing, three song squad ‘anthem’ of Sweet Child O’ Mine, Living on a Prayer and Don’t You Want Me, they’re gone!

Outside they hitch up their replica 9th century longship to a 21st century, many horse-powered towing device and thus ‘set sail’ into the distance – not for lands unknown, as their forbearers might have done, but actually steering a course for Sound Primary School in Lerwick.

Plundering and pillaging will have to wait – there’s social calls to be made, songs to be sung, roars to be roared, cheers to be cheered and photos to be taken first.

A truly long weekend of fun, festivities and frivolity no doubt await Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty and his marauding band of followers. Good luck to them and may fair winds follow them.

For more information on SMUHA itself, its weekend programme of events, features on, and photos of, the guizer jarl himself, his squad, the suits, the relevance and design process of the jarl squad jewellery, torch making, galley building, the near mythical ‘Tros’ick Up-Helly Aa in a ‘Times Past’ special, plus a tribute to the late Dale Smith – a SMUHA stalwart and ex-SMUHA guizer jarl who sadly passed away late last year – and much more besides – buy the new, enhanced edition of the festival programme, available from many local outlets.

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