The Jarl - Lord of Lerwick for a Day and a Night
Lerwick’s Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of his life for 15 years or more, before he dons his raven-winged helmet, grabs axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon. Along with the rest of the committed, volunteer crew, he’ll have spent thousands of hours preparing each and every Up Helly Aa and its associated events, until his big day dawns.
On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, almost 1,000 heavily-disguised men, in groups called ‘squads’, form ranks in the darkened streets of Shetland’s capital. Only the lead, or Jarl Squad, wear viking dress. The rest are in costumes ranging from the almost sublime to the totally ridiculous. The women of Lerwick play a huge part in the festival - organising, hosting at the halls, preparing and catering. And having a wonderful time in what for many is the social highlight of the year - dancing, seeing old friends, and enjoying the occasional drink in what was originally an entirely ‘dry’ festival aimed at encouraging abstinence. Officially, in some halls more than others, it still is! Many women say they have no desire to be in squads or take part in the procession itself though, outside of Lerwick, this is commonplace and some would like the same to be true in ‘da toon’.
Each guizer shoulders a stout fencing post, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking. On the stroke of 7.30pm, a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall. The torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly at the helm of his doomed replica longship, or 'galley'.
It takes half an hour for the Jarl's squad of Vikings to drag him to the burning site, through a crowd of 5,000 spectators or more.