Our January Diary

by Alastair Hamilton -

The sense of smell, they say, is one of the more powerful memory-joggers; and when January comes around, it’s the burning of paraffin-soaked torches that instantly springs to mind. January’s diary includes the first two of Shetland’s fire festivals, in a series that will run until March.

The first takes place in Scalloway on Friday 12 January, when Guizer Jarl Leslie Setrice will lead his Jarl’s Squad and hundreds of other guizers as they drag their longship through the village. Arriving at the slipway by the Boating Club, they’ll launch the vessel into the harbour and to meet its fiery fate, set ablaze as the torches are thrown aboard. Afterwards, there are all-night dances in local halls and the squads of guizers tour these, performing some kind of comedy or dance routine in each.

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa is the biggest of all the fire festivals and it’s always held on the last Tuesday in January, which this year is the 30th: “there will”, as the programme firmly asserts, “be no postponement for weather”. The festival isn’t that ancient, having emerged in the late 19th century as a less riotous successor to the tar-barrelling that had previously created messy mayhem along the main street. It became a celebration of Shetland’s Viking past and the Jarl’s Squad wear beautifully-crafted costumes. As in Scalloway, the procession is followed by a night (and morning) of revelry in local halls. Not surprisingly, the following day is a much-needed public holiday, but if you happen to be in the town, you’ll probably encounter the odd penguin, giant chicken, ballet dancer or space invader making their weary way home.

These festivals – and the others that follow in February and March, listed at the bottom of this page – are community events, the product of countless hours spent in building the galley, designing and making the costumes, developing the performance routines and making enough food to fuel an all-night party involving, in Lerwick’s case, something over 3,000 participants including the 900 or so torch-bearers. It’s possible to watch all the processions, but the parties are ticketed, with tickets – for Lerwick in particular – being issued mainly by invitation. However, it may be possible to track down tickets, for example by keeping an eye on the classified advertisements on local websites such as Shetlink. There are also two special concerts – the Fiery Sessions – on Lerwick's big day and - new this year - there's to be a pop-up food market in Mareel on Monday 29th, at which a number of local food producers will be displaying their wares and some new foodie delights are expected to launch.

The sights, sounds and smells of the fire festivals are unforgettable; everyone should experience at least one of them.

The other highlight this month, I reckon, is the film programme at Mareel, the arts centre in Lerwick. It always offers an interesting selection of films, in two cinemas with properly-raked, really comfortable seating (this is no standard-issue multiplex) but the programmers have excelled themselves in January. Among many others, we can look forward to The Florida Project, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman, and West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s much-anticipated Molly’s Game featuring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. Younger viewers will especially enjoy the new Pixar adventure, Coco and the return visit by Paddington 2. Among the more unusual showings are The Silence of the Lambs, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the haunting Marjorie Prime and, in a special screening for Holocaust Memorial Day, Destination Unknown.

the programmers have excelled themselves

January also sees the beginning of a short season of films connected with the First World War and with the exhibition, We’re Here Because We’re Here, which runs at the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale from January until March. The first is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas, showing towards the end of the month. In February, it’s followed by Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir, and War Horse. The season closes in March with Journey’s End.

On 28 January, there are two unusual treats. The first is another in the Exhibition on Screen series, when Mareel shows Cezanne: Portraits of a Life, an exhibition which opens in Paris then travels to Washington and London. There’s also a chance to see Mountain, a unique cinematic and musical collaboration between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and BAFTA-nominated director Jennifer Peedom; it’s a dazzling exploration of our obsession with mountains.

These are by no means all the events happening in Shetland in January: music is never far away and Shetland Arts is running a weekly Creativity Club on animation from mid-January until mid-February.

So – as always – we won’t be short of things to do.

Posted in: Community