Lesley Makes Up Helly Aa History

by Alastair Hamilton -

School head-teacher Lesley Simpson made history when she became the first female Guizer Jarl to lead one of Shetland's fire festivals.

It may have been Friday 13th, but Lesley and her Jarl's Squad couldn't have been more fortunate with the weather. On a calm, starry night, her procession marched from the village of Bigton, where she lives, to the sandy tombolo (or "ayre") that connects Shetland's mainland with St Ninian's Isle, which is pictured (in daylight) alongside this month's feature on Dunrossness. It's a stunning setting for the burning of a longship and the many hundreds of spectators who turned out witnessed a spectacle they'll never forget. After the burning, the South Mainland Up Helly Aa party continued long into the night at five halls.

Assuming the persona of Aud the Deep Minded, a woman who features strongly in the Laxdæla and other sagas, Lesley was modest about her achievement; nevertheless, the choice of purple, green and white for the squad's costumes – colours long associated with women's emancipation – was entirely appropriate.

Women take part in all the Up Helly Aa squads in rural areas of Shetland. Only the Lerwick event – much the largest – has a male-only procession. It probably won't be long before Lesley is followed by another female Guizer Jarl.

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