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By Adam CivicoJune 28th 2024

On Up Helly Aa day in Lerwick young people from across Shetland participate in the Junior Up Helly Aa festival. The occasion marks the end of a year's work that sees youngsters working closely with multiple generations.

Up Helly Aa and Shetland’s Fire Festival Season are famous for their torchlit processions and galley burning. As well as the adult festival, Lerwick has a long-established Junior Up Helly Aa.

The festival originated in the 1950s and was introduced to introduce youngsters to Up Helly Aa and prepare them for participating in the main festival.

Junior Up Helly Aa takes place on the same day as the senior event in Lerwick (the last Tuesday in January) and includes a Junior Jarl’s Squad dressed as Vikings, along with many other squads made up of girls and boys in fancy dress. Like the adults they form a procession through Lerwick which culminates when the youngsters hurlflaming torches into a replica galley.

It's a spectacular occasion and an incredible experience for the first- and second-year high school-age youngsters. But Junior Up Helly Aa is not just about the fiery celebration, it’s also about community and bringing people of different generations together. The festival won an award in June 2024 for its inter-generational work.

The awards meant the 2024 Junior Jarl’s Squad, led by teenager Oran McCulloch who was the Junior Jarl were invited to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. A great opportunity for a trip to the Scottish capital with friends.

Oran said the win was unexpected.

“We were just happy to be nominated, so to win is a real shock.

“I’m so proud to be part of Junior Up Helly Aa and be from Shetland. We couldn’t have done with without all our parents and festival volunteers, so thank you for helping us through the winter.

“And thank you for making it an experience me and my squad will never forget. Three cheers for Junior Up Helly Aa.”

Aims of Junior Up Helly Aa

The junior festival is run by a committee of volunteers, supported by the wider community. The festival has several objectives including:

• Promote the heritage and culture of Shetland amongst young people between the ages of 10 and 16 by being part of an annual community cultural event.

• Help young people, especially but not exclusively through leisure time activities, to enhance their physical and mental well-being whilst assisting them to develop to full maturity as individuals and members of society.

• Support young people to learn new skills, offer volunteering opportunities, gain accreditation and participate in intergenerational learning in areas like teamwork, public speaking, music and traditional skills.

Preparation for the annual festival takes place throughout the year, with the Junior Jarl’s Squad getting involved in many aspects of the work.

To help ensure everything runs smoothly, Junior Up Helly Aa is organised by a volunteer committee, with support from the wider community.

While the committee is made up of adults, the festival is about involving youngsters and teaching them new skills. This includes Junior Jarls Squad members helping to make their suits, researching Viking history to choose a character for the Jarl to represent and learning joinery skills to build a replica galley (a Viking longboat).

The first Junior Up Helly Aas were led by teachers and parents who helped build the galley and arranged the youngsters into squads of guizers for their torchlight procession and the burning of the galley (like their senior counterparts).

The modern festival evolved from this and is now run by a committee of volunteers, but the original theme remains. The intergenerational approach allows those involved in senior Up Helly Aa and others in the community to work alongside young people and pass on their skills and knowledge. In this way, those involved hope it will inspire the younger generation – from P7-S2 – to continue and keep Shetland’s Up Helly Aa tradition thriving.

Traditional skills

Those previously involved have said how important it was to their personal development when growing up and it’s not all about making torches and galleys. The intergenerational work includes young people and others in the community learning about the Viking sagas. These stories were the oral histories of families passed down the generations. In the same way, older Up Helly Aa enthusiasts are sharing their passion with the next generation, enabling them to become custodians of these stories ensuring they continue to be shared and told in future decades.

Older volunteers from the festival have also supported young people in passing on traditional skills including boat building, torch making and music.

One example is Junior Up Helly Aa musician Ryan Johnson who has been accepted into a summer school at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Accordionist Ryan played with the Junior Up Helly Aa band throughout the 2023 & 2024 festivals.

Junior Up Helly Aa chairman Martin Summers explains the ethos. “By bringing the generations together it ensures our older, more experienced participants have the opportunity to showcase their own learning. They take pride in the relationships they have built with young people. It ensures these older volunteers know that their skills are valued by the community and is in safe hands for the future of our fire festival community.

“During the activities there is an opportunity for that relationship building and shared respect, which might not happen if it were not for the shared interest in Up Helly Aa. Some of the best conversations happen over a tea break in the galley sheds – whether that be about discussions around school, their social lives, music playing on the radio or even what jobs they might want to do in the future.”

It's also worth noting that this activity takes place through the winter, giving young and old an important focus at a time of year when the days are short and the weather can be unforgiving.

In this way, Junior Up Helly Aa provides an avenue for generations to come together and work towards a festival that ensures we continue to demonstrate community spirit.

Junior Up Helly Aa fact file

  1. The first Junior Up Helly Aa festival was established in 1956.
  2. Junior Up Helly Aa 2024 saw the highest number of young people participating in recent history with 136 young people aged between 11 and 16.
  3. The Junior Procession saw 125 “Peerie Guizers” – boys and girls from all parts of Shetland joining the procession. This included a squad from the ASN department at Anderson High School, ensuring the procession was as inclusive as possible.
  4. The organisational committee currently consists of 14 volunteer members, aged from 15 to 72 years old.
  5. Committee members include former junior and senior guizer jarls, trained carpenters, and youth workers.
  6. The junior committee works closely with the senior festival which has members in their 80s. These stalwarts pass on their skills to the young people.
  7. Junior Up Helly Aa works with a range of community partners including schools, Shetland Arts, local businesses, and tourism organisations. The junior festival also has links with Lerwick Port Authority, which invites the Junior Jarls Squad to welcome visiting tourists on maiden cruise ship calls to Lerwick.
  8. Junior Jarls Squad members volunteer at the local food bank, Voar Redd Up and visit a local care home. In June 2024 members of the Junior Jarl Squad and musicians received Saltire volunteering certificates totalling over 1,100 hours between them. This event was hosted by Voluntary Action Shetland who manage the accreditation.
  9. During the fire festival procession, 40 adult volunteers act as marshals to ensure the safety of children and young people participating. They provide reassurance, assistance and encouragement during the procession which culminates in the burning of the viking longship.