By Laurie GoodladSeptember 13th 2019
Laurie Goodlad

Cruise liners are now a common sight in the picturesque confines of Lerwick Harbour and Friday 16 August was no exception as the Marco Polo arrived in against lashing rain and a stiff, cool breeze. It wasn’t the day that organisers had hoped for, but this is Shetland after all, and a bit of ‘authentic’ weather would only add to what was set to be a very different kind of cruise call in the town.

Eagerly waiting to get ashore were over 700 hash runners – members of a unique, if not unusual club that’s described as being either ‘a running group with a drinking problem’ or ‘a drinking club with a running problem’. Hash harriers are an international group of non-competitive running social clubs, with participants calling themselves hashers or hares and hounds. They had arrived in Shetland as part of Euro Hash 2019, a four-day event that would take the club on a series of trails and excursions around Edinburgh, Shetland and Orkney before ending (presumably) with a bang in Glasgow.

My role on the day – as I believed it to be (and we’ll come back to this) – was simply to pick up a coach load of hashers at Victoria Pier and give them some of the culture and tradition and point out the main points of interest along the way, throwing in one or two non-PC jokes for good measure.

As the group began to make their way onto the pier from the tenders, I knew that this day would be unlike any other I’d experienced as a trained tourist guide. They were colourful, flamboyant and the first roll call of questions included: "Where can I buy beer?", "Can I take beer on the bus?" and "Where’s the beer?"

Shore excursions are common in Shetland, as with most cruising ports, but the list of excursions for this special event was slightly different to the usual offering of panoramic tours promising puffins, ponies and maybe a cup of tea or coffee. These excursions, set out by the Shetland Hash Harrier’s Club, promised cross-country trails, mud, wild swimming, smuggler’s caves and for those who could take it; the ballbreaker course.

Soon the 10 coaches and a further seven trails were leaving Victoria Pier and heading to all corners of the islands. The coach I was ‘hosting’ contained 50 eager hashers and the buzz onboard was exhilarating as we wove our way out of Lerwick towards our destination: Burra.

In Burra we met the other ‘Burra’ group, bringing our group total to 100. We left them in the hands of the ‘hares’ – members of the local group who had been out and set out cross-country trails ranging from four to seven miles. And with the groups call “ON ON”, ringing in my ears, they were off, into the driving wind and rain.

Part way through their gruelling course around the Hamnavoe circular they had a ‘beer stop’ at the Meal beach – a breathtakingly beautiful sandy beach with turquoise seas that would not be out of place on a Caribbean postcard.

Catching up with hare, Maurice Fraser, on the beach he explains that the course is: “reasonably challenging” for competitors. It’s mostly all cross-country with some boggy bits and heather to go through, some cliffs and the beach.”

With beers down the hatch and a quick dip in the North Atlantic for the hardier in the group, they set off on their merry way back towards the Burra Public Hall.

Public halls form the backbone of most rural communities in Shetland. Run by an army of willing volunteers, these 50 halls cater for and host a whole range of events for the community. At the hall they were treated to the very best of Shetland cuisine all laid on by Pauline Laurenson and her team in the kitchen. The menu included: reestit mutton tattie soup and fish soup – both prepared by the men who reared the sheep and caught the fish – saat beef bannocks, mackerel pate oatcakes, smoked haddock quiche, tea and coffee, and of course – beer.

Pauline, entirely unphased by cooking for over 100 hungry runners explained that: “We are promoting fish because Burra is very much a fishing island.”

Easing some of the pressure from the committee members in the kitchen on the day she explains that: “a lot o’ folk have contributed bannocks and homebakes”.

After the feast the group were treated to some traditional Shetland dancing and given the opportunity to learn the Boston two step; a dance always performed at weddings and local dances. A true floor-filler, it wasn’t long before all the hashers had taken up a partner and were stepping in time to this Shetland classic.

So far, so tame. And then came the ‘circle’. The ‘circle’ is a feature unique to hashing where the group form a circle led by the GM (grand master) and RA (religious advisor) who call members into the centre to be shamed for any misdemeanor on the course – or in general. Offences included: ‘over-achieving’ by the sea swimmers, falling and causing injury to yourself. This is the time where initiations into the group may also happen and I found myself the receiver of this time-honoured ceremony.

Every hash club member has a ‘hash handle’ or hash name; a name given to you – not chosen – and usually relating to something you have done on a hash. The names are wild and wonderfully vulgar in some cases and a list of participants in the Euro Hash 2019 can be found here.

My initiation into the group was a result of my coach commentary where I described Shetland’s thriving aquaculture industry. I explained how our mussels were rope-grown and therefore we had “very tasty, meaty mussels in Shetland.” And with those two words a hash name was born: Meaty Mussels.

Initiation involved lying face down in the circle shouting “I am not worthy”, as beer was sprinkled on me from the GM brandishing a toilet brush as a microphone – the same brush that did the beer sprinkling. After I had received this new name, I stood up and necked a pint. 

Speaking to a few of the participants after the run I learned that they had come from all over the world and had thoroughly enjoyed the trail set out by the Shetland hares.

“It’s been brilliant, stunning views, a bit windy but absolutely lovely,” said Camping Gaz. “Hashing is really inclusive, you meet people from all walks of life.”

Another explained the appeal of hashing: “You don’t have to be an athlete [to compete]. You can be a slow person – you don’t even have to be interested in running.”

With beer goggles on, I boarded my bus back to Lerwick, and our next destination, the Lounge Bar. I have never guided under the influence of alcohol before – and it was quite an experience – but I think that they enjoyed my rendition of a song my dad used to sing to me:

“My faider’s a levvy pan cleaner,
He cleans aa’ da levvies by night,
An’ when he comes hame in da mornin’,
His shoes are aa covered in…
SHHHHHIIIIII… up ‘ur buttons wi’ Brasso,
Shine up ‘ur buttons wi Vim,
Shine up ‘ur buttons wi Brasso…
It’s only a penny a tin!”

After some live local music in the Lounge we all boarded the tenders back onto the Marco Poloand joined the group for more entertainment in the ship’s lounge.

But the fun was not over yet, just before we left to make our now unsteady way back to dry land, the Jarl Squad invaded the Marco Polo singing their iconic Up Helly Aa song.

Coming back into Victoria Pier at twilight with the Jarl Squad singing was one of the most surreal experiences of my life – the whole day was a surreal experience – and I can only imagine what the unsuspecting hashers made of their ship being invaded by men brandishing shields and axes.

All in all, a great day was had by all – ON ON!

Visit the UK Hash House Harriers website to find out more about hash events or the Shetland Hash House Harriers Facebook group for local events.