The guizers and the galley
Thursday 24 January 2013
There are hundreds of reasons to visit Shetland’s magical islands. I go as often as I can, usually in summer when Britain’s most northern isles enjoy almost continuous daylight.
That means you have endless time to watch sea mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales and seabirds from comical puffins to majestic sea eagles.
There are many ancient sites and even a chance to visit the home of Scotland’s second best known poet – communist Hugh MacDiarmid – who lived on Whalsey, one of Shetland’s many islands.
Local ceilidhs are held in the countless halls offering a chance to hear and dance to the legendary Shetland fiddlers and other traditional music.
Best of all are the endless expanses of dramatic rugged coastal scenery.
That continuous daylight in summer has to be paid for, and in midwinter Shetland can be a dark and gloomy place until the islanders brighten it up with an amazing fire festival – Europe’s largest. They call it Up Helly Aa.
For 24 hours on the last Tuesday of January (this year the 29th) the capital town of Lerwick and the whole of the islands of Shetland go mad.
However dark and dreary, the proud boast is that “there will be no postponement for weather.”
As we are talking about Britain’s most northerly corner – on the same latitude as southern Greenland – that is some boast.
Gales, sleet and snow or flooding have never yet stopped the event.
The Jarl – leader of the festival for just one day – will have been elected a dozen years before and will have been planning the longest day of his life since then.
Today he will don his raven-winged Viking helmet, grab his axe and shield and embark on a 24-hour sleepless marathon.
On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day over 800 heavily disguised men form ranks in the darkened streets of the old whaling port of Lerwick.
They shoulder stout wooden poles, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking.
On the stroke of 7.30pm a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall.
The torches are lit and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly at the helm of his doomed Viking longship.
The guizers circle the dragon ship in a slow-motion Catherine Wheel of fire. Another rocket explodes overhead. The Jarl leaves his ship as the torches are hurled into the galley.
As the inferno destroys four months of painstaking work by the galley builders, the crowd sings The Norseman’s Home.
Then the Vikings are off. More than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen local halls in rotation.
At every hall each squad performs its “act.” Each guizer will dance with at least one of the local women, sink a dram or two and maybe snatch a bowl of mutton soup and a bannock.
It’s a fast and furious night – so fast and furious in fact that the next day is a public holiday.
That’s not the end of it, for throughout the rest of the winter each gang of guizers will hold their own squad dances for family and friends.
The Viking roots of the Up Helly Aa traditions go back 12 centuries and more but today’s format is in fact just over a century old.
Today’s torchlit procession and galley burning echo pagan Norse rituals at the cremation of great chieftains, and religious ceremonies to mark the sun’s return after the winter solstice.
If you should miss the Lerwick Up Helly Aa or if it gives you the taste for more of the same, there are another eight fire festivals in various districts of Shetland during the late winter.
Summer visitors to Shetland can discover more about the festival at the Up Helly Aa Exhibition in the Galley Shed, St Sunniva Street, Lerwick.
Shetland’s fine museum also has extensive photographic archives of the festival down through the years.