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January 2009 Newsletter


Here is our newsletter from January 2009. To receive our monthly newsletters by email, please sign-up using the form in the left column.

A Season Of Fire Festivals

January sees the first two of ten fire festivals that occur in Shetland each year. The Lerwick Up Helly Aa, always held on the last Tuesday in January, is the largest of these and is known world-wide; there is also a junior version, held earlier the same evening, in which school students participate. The Scalloway Fire Festival is normally the first, but this year's event, which was due to be held on Friday 9 January, is cancelled because the Guizer Jarl's baby son became seriously ill; fortunately, he is making a good recovery. Other smaller fire festivals take place during February and March in the districts of Nesting, Northmavine, Uyeasound, Cullivoe, Bressay and Norwick, with the last occurring in Brae, this year on 20 March.

Whatever their scale, these are great events that bring communities together in celebration of the return of lighter nights. As this article explains, such celebrations have taken various forms over many centuries, but, today, they always feature a specially-constructed Viking Longship which is consumed in a huge bonfire at the end of the procession.

That's followed by a night of entertainment as the various groups (or 'squads') making up the procession circulate among a number of local halls, where they perform sketches based on recent events or popular themes. There is dancing, music and an ample supply of bannocks, soup and reestit mutton to keep everyone going into the small hours and, in Lerwick's case, until breakfast-time.

The Lerwick event features more than eight hundred torch-bearing guizers - men in often remarkable disguises. After a day of appearances at schools and care homes, the squads assemble in the evening on a street known as the Hillhead, where their torches are lit from dazzling flares. Unlike rural fire festivals, Lerwick's squads are all-male, despite what some of their costumes would lead you to believe. Headed by the galley, the procession marches around the streets of the town - accompanied by a brass band and a pipe band - until it reaches the burning site, to be set alight as the hundreds of torches are thrown into it. The whole event is extraordinary: sights, sounds and smells combine to make an unforgettable night. There's more background information here.

History In The Kitchen

How do you fancy some Stap? Or Hakka Muggies, maybe? And a sip or two of Whipkull? During December, a facsimile reprint of Margaret Stout's classic, Cookery for Northern Wives, was published.

The book, which first appeared in 1925, is a unique collection of recipes that not only reflect the tastes and resources of that period but provide glimpses of much older culinary traditions.

Margaret Stout, born in Lerwick in 1894, gained a First Class Diploma from the Edinburgh School of Cookery and Domestic Economy and went on to lecture and write on cookery topics. During the First World War, she ran a canteen at London's King's Cross station that catered for Scottish troops on passage to or from France.

When she came back to Shetland, she was determined to write a book that would preserve old recipes while also offering a range of contemporary ones, and Cookery For Northern Wives was the result.

The book might have been sub-titled waste not, want not; indeed, as a reviewer on BBC Radio 4's Food Programme recently suggested, this is a book with more than usual relevance in these credit-crunch times. The recipes invariably make use of every part of an animal or fish. On page 27, for example, there's a recipe that involves roasting and stuffing an udder; a remarkable number of dishes feature fish livers. At the same time, there are more lavish concoctions. Whipkull is a drink involving a dozen egg yolks, a pound of sugar, a pint of rum or mead and a quart of cream.

There are many old favourites, too, like Gingerbread, Plum Pudding and Kedgeree. At a time when many people are rediscovering the pleasure of cooking with local, fresh ingredients, Cookery For Northern Wives is a useful and intriguing addition to the kitchen bookshelf. It's available at £9.95 (plus post and packing) from the
publishers, Shetland Heritage Publications, telephone 01595 694688, or through booksellers: the ISBN is 978-0-9557642-1-9.

Projects And People Gain Environmental Awards

This year's Shetland Environmental Awards were announced at a ceremony in Lerwick during December. As always, the range of entries was wide and the quality was high, giving the judges a difficult task in choosing the ten winners.

In the natural environment, the submissions that found favour included the Scottish Killer whale Project, which aims to increase understanding of Killer Whales in Shetland waters; the first-ever Shetland Nature Festival, which featured events across the islands; and the interpretation project undertaken by pupils and staff at
North Roe Primary School. On the island of Unst, a growing enterprise that has transformed a piece of unused land into a productive market garden was praised for combining commercial viability with good environmental practice. Other examples of community-based environmental work were a community garden at Skeld and the Bridges Project, which involves young people who are not in education or employment in voluntary environmental work.

Another project with a similarly strong social component was the Shetland Community Bike Project, which has recycled more than 2,000 bikes for re-use.

Two buildings won awards; one was an innovative new house in Waas by a local architect, Richard Gibson and the other was a re-creation of a 13th century Norse timber stofa on the island of Papa Stour, undertaken by the Papa Stour History Group. Finally, an award recognised the work of a local naturalist, Martin Heubeck, over more than thirty years. Brian Gregson, who chaired the judging panel, said that all of the successful entries showed outstanding commitment to the environment.

More Vikings

A new take on Viking heritage arrives shortly in the shape of Faintheart, a British film that transforms 'a lowly loser into an epic hero'. At the time of writing, it was expected that the film would be given a special showing in Lerwick on 26 January, the day before Up Helly Aa, prior to special showings across Britain scheduled for 27 January.

And More Crime Writing

As has observed before, Shetland is hardly the most obvious setting for crime novels, but we have a further addition to the bookshelf in the shape of Sharon Bolton's novel, Sacrifice, described by reviewers as 'atmospheric and original' and a 'slick, fast moving thriller'. The paperback edition (ISBN 978-0593059128) is available to buy from here.

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