Sparks Fill Lerwick Sky In Blustery 2017 Up Helly A
by Alastair Hamilton -
Lerwick’s Up Helly A, held on the last Tuesday in January, was as spectacular as ever in 2017. This wasn’t one of those years when the 1000 or so guizers - and the several thousand onlookers - are blessed by a calm, dry evening. However, as the programme always reminds us, “there will be no postponement for weather”. The wind and rain only added to the atmosphere; sparks flew even more vigorously than usual and damp pavements glowed, reflecting the torches. The only concession to the conditions was the omission of the usual counter-marching on the long, broad King Harald Street.
This year’s Guizer Jarl (chief guizer) is Lyall Gair, who for 2017 has taken on the persona of Sweyn ‘Forkbeard’ Haraldsson, eldest child of King Harald ‘Bluetooth’. Sweyn was remembered for his ambition and ruthlessness, in contrast to his wise father. Lyall is, among other things, a loyal member of Scotland’s Tartan Army, whose unfailingly optimistic members follow the Scottish football team on its travels; a hidden clue to his passion was to be revealed at the galley burning later in the evening.
For Sweyn and the 58 members of his squad, the day began with breakfast at the Islesburgh Community Centre, after which they headed over to the Toll Clock Shopping Centre, where they gave the Up Helly A song a full-throated workout. Next, they joined their galley at the British Legion and marched into the town centre, accompanied by the Lerwick Brass Band, to be greeted by hundreds more locals and visitors.
As always, the Jarl’s Squad’s costumes were beautifully crafted and very impressive in their details.
The galley, this year named Falcon, was, as usual, left for the rest of the day at Alexandra Wharf, where its craftsmanship was closely inspected and greatly admired.
After marching south along the Esplanade, they inspected their Bill at a packed Market Cross; the Bill is a witty proclamation of the Guizer Jarl’s virtues and a satirical commentary on current events, this year ranging from structural problems in a new Council building to the election of President Donald Trump – who, incidentally, had a mini-Bill all of his own in a shop window.
The Jarl’s Squad then returned briefly to the galley for photographs that will find their way into many a family album.
After the photo-call, the Jarl’s Squad would normally head up to the Town Hall for a civic reception but, as it’s under repair, the event was held at Mareel, the arts centre, where the Guizer Jarl received the freedom of Lerwick for the day from the Convener of Shetland Islands Council, Malcolm Bell. Also present was the Faroese Prime Minister, Aksel Johannesen, and some guests from Lerwick’s Norwegian twin town, Maloy, to which a toast is always drunk.
The rest of the day was spent in visits to schools, care homes, the hospital and the Shetland Museum and Archives, where they gave a particularly enthusiastic performance of Elvis Presley’s Burning Love, one of several during the day. Visitors are often surprised to find that Up Helly Aa doesn’t find all its inspiration in the sagas!
Around 6pm, the galley was quietly moved from Alexandra Wharf on the next stage of its journey and, over the next hour or so, the full complement of 1,004 guizers from the 46 other squads collected their torches and made their way to the Lower Hillhead.
Once the Jarl’s Squad had marched up the ranks of waiting guizers to reach their galley, there came the signal for the lighting up of the torches, the firing of a maroon. The galley then began its final journey, the throng wending its way along the streets of the 19th century ‘new town' and into the King George V playing field.
Surrounded by the torchbearers, the galley awaited its fate. On a signal (another loud maroon), the guizers, marching round it, sang the Galley Song, which was followed by three cheers each for the galley builders and torch-makers, the festival and the Guizer Jarl. On a bugle call, the torches were thrown into the galley and it was soon well alight. The strong wind fanned the flames and the mast soon collapsed, then the dragon’s head was consumed, revealing that hidden reference to the Guizer Jarl’s loyalties, a Scottish saltire.
As the flames enveloped the galley, the guizers sang The Norseman's Home.
For most of the huge crowd, Lerwick’s Up Helly A was over for another year and they made their way home or back to hotels and guest houses, accompanied by the lingering smell of paraffin smoke that’s as much a part of the experience as everything else.
But for two or three thousand folk, the night had just begun, as they headed to one of the eleven ‘halls’ – including venues such as the Anderson High School, Mareel and the Clickimin Centre – that would host the 47 squads right through until around 8am. In each hall, every squad performed their routines before joining in dancing with guests and topping up with reestit mutton soup, bannocks, sandwiches - and, quite possibly, a peerie dram. Wednesday is a public holiday in Lerwick, but the fun wasn’t quite over, as a ‘guizers’ hop’ in the evening starred Glasgow-based Federation of the Disco Pimp
An online search using the usual search engines will reveal lots more about Up Helly A, including newspaper reports and photo selections, like this one from The Guardian. The traditional music is available online, too. The official website has a wealth of information about the Lerwick event. You can also find information on our own site, which (at the bottom of the page) lists all the other fire festivals that take place over the period from early January to late March. The rural festivals are smaller than Lerwick's (though some have upwards of 300 guizers) and also differ in that the squads often include women and the galley is burned at sea.
The Guizer Jarl and his squad have a full year of engagements ahead of them and it won’t be long before preparations begin for 2018. Next year, the last Tuesday in January is the 30th, so – if you’d like to see the Lerwick festival in person – it’s not too soon to think about booking accommodation and it’s wise to book flights or ferries, too, as soon as bookings open.
Posted in: Heritage