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Our January 2020 Diary

by Alastair Hamilton -

A new year may be upon us, but old traditions are very much part of our January diary.

I say “may” because if you happen to live on our westernmost island, Foula, it’s still 2019. Santa Claus doesn’t slip down Foula’s chimneys until old Yule, on 6 January, and you’ll welcome 2020 on the 13th. If you’d like to delve a little deeper into Yule traditions in Shetland, there’s more about them here.

Meanwhile, all over Shetland, thoughts are turning to another kind of celebration, namely fire festivals. January sees the first in a three-month season of them, a dozen in all. We have information about each of them on this page.

All the fire festivals share common elements. To start the day, a ‘bill’ – a placard extolling the virtues of the Guizer Jarl and satirising local events or people is posted in a prominent position. During the day, the leader of the festival, the Jarl and accompanying squad tour local schools and care homes.

In the evening, there’s a torchlight procession featuring many more guizers in fancy dress, which concludes with the spectacular burning of a painstakingly-constructed galley. The sparks fly and the smell of paraffin from the torches lingers in the air.

The burning is followed by parties in local halls, which may continue until 8am the following morning and feature performances by all the squads. Their party piece is some sort of comedy or musical act. There’s dancing and an all-night buffet.

Recovery from all this usually absorbs the remainder of the second day and, in Lerwick especially, somewhat dishevelled fairies, penguins, mobsters or spacemen can be found wending their weary way home through the town’s otherwise deserted streets on what is, understandably, a public holiday.

The first fire festival takes place in Scalloway on Friday 10th January, when the squads parade along the main street and march on along the shore road to the boating club, where they launch their galley into the harbour and set it ablaze with hundreds of flaming torches. Pictured above, it’s always a really impressive sight.

Lerwick’s festival, always held on the last Tuesday in January, follows on the 28th; it’s the largest, with somewhere around 900 torch-bearing guizers accompanied by the brass band and the pipe band. It’s also the oldest, having existed in more or less its present form since the late 19th century.

However, its roots are much deeper. It replaced rather chaotic celebrations involving burning tar barrels that had gone on for many years before that, and some form of celebration of the return of longer days probably goes back to Viking or indeed prehistoric times.

The Lerwick celebration differs in other ways from the rural ones. It’s the only one in which women don’t participate in the procession, though – at first glance – it might not seem that way, because there’s some very accomplished cross-dressing. The town’s galley is burned in a park, rather than afloat; and the parties in Lerwick’s halls are essentially invitation-only events, whereas in rural areas tickets are generally advertised for sale. That said, it’s sometimes possible to obtain tickets for a Lerwick hall, for example on Njord Market.

These festivals do tend to absorb a lot of the energies of the communities concerned, but there are other diversions. One of them, on the 8th, is sure to be popular: there’s a talk at the Shetland Museum and Archives about the exhibition currently running there that features ceramics by Grayson Perry.

Quite apart from the appeal of being able to see the work of a Turner prize-winner at such close quarters, it’s a brilliantly-conceived show that shares not only his life experiences but also those of local people. You can read our review of it here

Over at our arts centre, Mareel, there are all sorts of delights. Among the films on offer, Star Wars continues its run and others in the first half of the month include Jumanji: The Next Level; Cats; Little Monsters; Little Women; 2040; Judy; and Joker.

Later in January, there are screenings of The Gentlemen; Ordinary Love; Spies in Disguise; Motherless Brooklyn; 1917; Bombshell; Marriage Story; and Jojo Rabbit. Classics during the month include My Beautiful Laundrette on the 18th and 23rd and La Belle Epoque on the 19th.

Jazz fans have a treat on Saturday 11 January with a showing of Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool and there’s another exploration into the work of well-known artists on the 19th; this time, the subject is Lucien Freud.

One of the many opportunities available for young people is the chance to develop and refine their contemporary dance technique and choreography skills. The Shetland Youth Dance company offers weekly sessions, with more intensive courses on some weekends or during holidays.

There are performances, too, including one at Mareel on 6 January, and the company works with local and visiting choreographers. For example, the company will soon be teaming up with dancer Solène Weinachter and Scottish Dance Theatre to create a piece in the round as an opener to a very special performance.

An alternative Burns Night is shaping up on the 25th, when Ayrshire ska-punk band, The Hostiles, will take to Mareel’s stage. They were recently described by Discovered Magazine as “the band marrying ska and pop punk like no other in 2019.”

Reflecting band members’ backgrounds, they blend US and Scottish ska traditions. Also appearing that night are a Shetland five-piece, Big Time Quell, who’ll be demonstrating once again that Shetland has a wealth of really talented musicians covering just about every genre.

For a rather more traditional take on the Shetland music scene, we have The Fiery Sessions, an annual concert presented in association with Up Helly Aa. It takes place on the day of the festival, the 28th, and it always features a selection of the islands’ best-known players.

Visual arts aren’t forgotten in January. At the excellent Bonhoga gallery in Weisdale, about twenty minutes’ drive north-west of Lerwick, a new show opens on 25 January and runs for two months. Ultima Thule tells a timeless story spanning centuries, of migrants fleeing from war and persecution or seeking a better life for loved ones. It features the work of Lucy Woodley, who studied jewellery at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen, graduating in 1992. She later ran a successful jewellery business, but she now concentrates on sculptural works for galleries and private commissions.

Visitors, or people considering a move to Shetland, are often curious to know what there is to do in the islands. This monthly diary aims to give some idea of the range of activities and events that take place, but it can only offer a taste of what’s on offer. There are many more local events throughout the islands, ranging from crafting sessions to film quizzes or debate nights.

Local clubs and societies are active all year round and cater for all ages; you can gain some idea of their scope from the Shetland Community Directory. There are many evening classes, too; they cover a wide range of topics ranging from dressmaking to geology, screenwriting to Spanish, and many more.

The truth is that we’re never short of things to do!

Posted in: Community

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