Mardi Gras of Fire… Viking-Style


The Jarl (Photo M. Germana)

The Jarl (Photo M. Germana)*

The weather was never going to be on our side. Although the force-11 gale forecast never came true, the locals said they hadn’t had such awful weather in a long time for Up Helly Aa. This is the annual fire festival – the largest in Europe – hosted in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. And this year – in spite of the heavy rain and the frosty blizzard – I was among the thousands that lined up the streets of Lerwick to be part of Up Helly Aa 2013.

What is Up Helly Aa? The festival’s name seems connected with the word ‘Helly’ which in ‘Shetlandese’ means week-end, but also ‘holy’, though it may also be linked to the last day of Christmas celebrations, which would fall 24 days after 5 January:

Historically the 5th of January was Old Yule, and the 24th day following the 5th was the final day of the Yuletide celebrations – a day of fire, feasting and frolic – Up Helly Aa day. It has also been referred to as the “four and twenty day” and “Antimass” or “St. Anthony Day” – all meaning “the whole festival at an end.”(Shetlopedia)

It’s a relatively modern tradition, dating back to the 1840s, when celebrations of the end of Yuletide started to involve the burning of barrels. The Viking theme is an even more recent acquisition (c. 1877), although, of course, the relationship with Norway has been a strong part of Shetland’s history and culture for centuries.

The Jarl Squad and the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)

The Jarl Squad and the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

Against all odds, we were lucky with the weather during the day.


Helmet Detail (Photo M. Germana)

Led by Jarl Stevie Grant, and accompanied by the sounds of pipe and brass bands, the squad paraded around Lerwick and ended up on the Alexandra Wharf where the guizers’ lined up on the galley (Krisara was her name, this year) for photographs. This year’s Jarl costumes were blue and silver and as the sun kept popping in and out, the light bounced off spears, axes and helmets. Their ornate designs reminded me of those found in the treasure of St. Ninian’s Isle.

Vikings Come in all Sizes (Photo M. Germana)

Vikings Come in all Sizes (Photo M. Germana)

As my friend Bruce often reminded me, although the festival has attracted tourists for some time, it largely remains a local thing. You could certainly read the community spirit in the guizers’ eyes, looking out for thir friends on the streets and taking care of some of the youngest members of the squad… from 4 years of age and going up to 90+, there is no limit, as long as you are male (no women are allowed on any of the squads!),  fit enough to carry an axe and, in the evening, a torch for the final procession, leading to the burning of the boat itself.

The evening ceremony involves a larger crowd of guizers. Beside the Jarl’s, 47 ‘alternative’ squads took part in Up Helly Aa this year. Each squad dressed up following the most diverse themes, ranging from Rastafarian to giant Teddy-Bears, cross-dressers and fire-fighters.

There are no words – or pictures – to do this breath-taking spectacle any justice. At 7:30pm exactly, all the street lights go off. This is when you realise, for a few instants, how dark winter nights must have been in the olden days.

Then the magic begins.

And Then There Was Light (Photo M. Germana)*

And Then There Was Light (Photo M. Germana)*

Gradually nine hundred torches are lit and, with the smell of paraffin increasingly more pungent in the air, in a matter of minutes the streets are bright again, as the squads begin marching in a circular route along Lower Hillhead, St Olaf Street and King Harald Street. The rain is replaced by a thick shower of orange sparkles. It is like witnessing the end of the world, or being in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

The parade ends in a park in the centre of town, where music, songs and fireworks announce the imminent blaze.

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

This year, I am told, fewer people turned up to see the burning, no doubt due to the weather. To me, it all added to the drama and, with fewer bodies around, I was able to get closer to the burning site, to watch the body of Krisara slowly being consumed by the flames.

It all happens rather quickly. The guizers throw their torches over onto the galley, which is soon ablaze.

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

The Procession (Photo M. Germana)*

On a night like last Tuesday, the phrase ‘battle of the elements’ couldn’t ring truer. Although the wind and rain threatened to blow off the torches, in the end, the fire was the winner. The storm subsided, allowing the galley to be engulfed in the firy embrace of Up Helly Aa.

Setting Fire to the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

Setting Fire to the Gulley (Photo M. Germana)*

After the burning, people found shelter in friends’ houses to reactivate blood circulation with the aid of a dram or two… I have to thank Anne and Robert for my life-saving sip of whisky.

The celebrations continued at the 12 official festival halls where live entertainment, eating, drinking and most importantly ceilidh dancing went on until 8 o’ clock in the morning. There was also a comedy show on at the new theatre-cum-arts-centre, Mareel. The guizers visited each of the hall, performing dance routines and songs inspired by current affairs, popular culture and local business. Some of the acts are exquisitely random; think Snow White Meets Star Wars, Little Britain does James Bond or dancing giraffes… In most cases it worked, in a strange kind of way, and each performance deserved top marks for creativity. After their acts, the guizers invite the spectators to dance with them. I was the only lass in hiking boots and, by far, the worst ceilidh dancer in Islesburgh Hall, but I was welcome to join in.

The day after is a public holiday in Lerwick.  Everybody will catch a little sleep before going out again at night, to compare notes and share the gossip.

The Blaze (Photo M. Germana)*

The Blaze (Photo M. Germana)*

*A selection of photographs kindly reproduced after publication in New Welsh Review, 102, December 2013.

Away from it all: my journey back to Shetland


Tammy Norie (Photo M. Germana)

In May, when the weather started to turn unseasonally cold,  I took the opportunity to return to Shetland, nine years since my first visit to the far north of Britain. It gave me an opportunity to catch up with my friend Bruce, who, on my first visit to Shetland, let me stay at his place when the youth hostel was booked out: it was the beginning of a long-distance friendship and a beautiful way to find out more about Shetland. Like other Shetlanders, Bruce has many a story to tell about this enchanting place.

Fewer and fewer British tourists choose to spend their vacation in Britain and fewer still will choose Shetland as their preferred holiday destination. Access to package holidays promising two weeks in the sun are, frankly, too tempting for most of the heat-starved bodies living in the British isles. Still, if you can bear to pack your waterproofs and thermals instead of flipflops and bikinis, Shetland may offer the kind of cleansing retreat for anybody who overuses the word ‘busy’ in relation to their diaries, social engagements and family lives. If the idea of de-cluttering your mind appeals to you, then the open scenery of Shetland, scattered with sheep, ponies, and the occasional puffin may just cut it.

Traffic Lights (Photo M. Germana)

It was sunny, if a little chilly, when we landed at Sumburgh Airport, one of the easiest airports you will ever fly to. It is also perhaps the only one where, on your way back, you will drive across the runway to catch your plane: a special traffic-light system will flash a red light if a plane is about to take off or land and a dedicated patrol car keeps an eye out for stray ponies or lambs from the adjacent fields.

As for my packing, I must admit, it was a rushed affair and I forgot to accommodate for the unpredictability of Scottish weather;  Shetland is in a different league and on my first day I headed for the chemist’s to buy a pair of sunglasses, which, my pessimistic self had left at home. I also, to be fair, visited The Spider’s Web, one of a cluster of shops in Lerwick specialising in local knitwear, to purchase a pair of woolly gloves (this time, the optimistic side of me had not thought about packing them!): even on sunny days you will need to negotiate your outdoors activities with the persistent breeze that Shetland is famous for.

Shetland ponies (Photo M. Germana)

Perhaps this is why the topography of Lerwick is sliced by narrow lanes connecting Commercial Street, aka ‘da street’, to the sea-front, whose buildings shelter the main shopping street from the strong winds coming from the sea. Walking through these quaint passageways you will also discover some of Lerwick’s pleasant refreshment spots: The Peerie Shop offers freshly-baked cakes and coffees, though you may want to head futher up the hill, towards Charlotte Fort, to the Havly Cafe, for the nicest espresso in town… and Shetland, probably: imported coffee machines become less frequent the further north you travel. If you are after a more substantial meal, then, Monty’s Bistro is a good bet: you can generally rely on the freshness of fish and lamb.

Waterproof lambs

Frankly, however, I find it hard to believe that people could go for the latter, particularly this time of the year, when newborn lambs roam around the fields outside Lerwick. This spring was – surprise, surprise –  a cold one in Shetland, and farmers have tried hard to protect their new flock. Some of them even went as far as supplying them with – I kid you not – waterproof gear. We also noticed that sheep have a particular way of turning their ‘bottoms’ to the wind, as that makes it easier to keep grazing on in spite of the elements. Apparently, we were told by a friendly waitress in Unst, Shetland road-workers use a similar strategy and that may well explain the lack of straight roads in Shetland!

Cute animals aren’t the only reason for visiting Shetland, though if you are a twitcher, this would definitely be an unmissable destination – puffins, guillemots, gannets are all on the menu, so to speak, particularly if you head for Sumburgh Head, Noss or Hermaness, in Unst.

Standing Stone, Unst (Photo M. Germana)

Archeological ruins, both from Shetland’s neolithic past and more recent times, are a reminder that, in spite of their remote location and challenging climate, these islands always had an interesting history, placed as they are halfway between Norway and Scotland: the archipelago was a Norwegian territory up until 1468, when Christian I of Norway pledged Shetland as a dowry for his daughter Margaret, who was given in marriage to James III of Scotland; technically, Norway may still ‘buy’ Shetland back, and, judging by the number of Norwegian flags on display in Lerwick, one wonders whether Shetlanders would mind a change of hands.

Evidence of Shetland’s rich historic – and pre-historic past – is written all over its landscape, in the form of lone standing stones, crofters’ houses, ruined churches and some of the best preserved archeological sites in Britain.

Mousa Brooch (Photo M. Germana)

One of the most iconic examples is the ancient broch of Mousa, perhaps the best preserved of all prehistoric fortifications in Britain and Europe, and a place evocative of the Norse/Scots hybrid traditions that make up Shetland’s cultural heritage. Anybody interested in archeology should also pay a visit to the Jarslhof complex, south west of Lerwick: apparently, it was none other than Sir Walter Scott who gave the site its name, which means ‘the Earl’s House’, as he referred to it in The Pirate (1821). Not far from these spots is one of Shetland’s most idyllic spots: the St. Ninian’s Isle Tombolo, also the site of a famous archeological finding: to catch a glimpse of the treasure of St. Ninian you will need to head back to the mainland to the National Museum of Scotland.

St. Ninian’s Isle (Photo M. Germana)

If the weather turns wet, and chances are it will, visitors may want to spend some time learning about Shetland’s rich past in the cosy environment of the Shetland Museum and Archive, back in Lerwick, a great source of information about Shetland’s geology, archeological and historical past, and folklore.

Haunted Windhouse, Yell (Photo M. Germana)

I was particularly interested in learning about some of the islands’ popular superstitions, such as the ‘trows‘, a Shetland version of the Scandinavian trolls, and yet another reminder of the archipelago’s borderline position between Britain and Norway. Later on, whilst travelling up North, we visited the most haunted house in Shetland, the Windhouse in Yell, where, apparently, a brave shipwrecked sailor succeeded in killing a giant trow. With so much coastline – you are never more than 5km away from the sea – it’s not hard to ‘see’ how the supernatural would have played an important part in the popular culture shaped by the tidal, windswept, moody scenery of Shetland.

‘Tides’ (Photo M. Germana)

Indeed, that’s perhaps the quality that appealed to me the most about this part of the world: the landscape is remote, desolate, haunted, sublime. It may rain a lot, but it’s never boring; in fact, it will hardly ever fail to catch you by surprise. From the darkest winters to the famous ‘simmer dim’, Shetland produces a great palette for the camera. In the heart of winter, on the last Tuesday of January, the absence of light is replaced by the Viking spectacle of burning fire during the Up Helly Aa festival, which, one day, I hope to be able to see.

Rainbow in Hermaness (Photo M. Germana)

There is a sense, too, of being at the end of the world. This is not so much to do with the touristy reminders that you may be staying – as we did! – in Britain’s northernmost hotel (Baltasound Hotel), where you can have a nightcap in the adjoining hostelry known as – you’ve guessed it – Britain’s northernmost bar (Springer’s Bar), or send a postcard home from the most northerly post office in the country. The people are friendly, willing to share their problems – only one engineer to serve two islands (Yell and Unst)! – and their quirky stories; if you ever make it as far as Unst, you will not miss driving past Bobby’s Bus shelter. According to local lore  – and the website that was set up in 1998 to support the increasing popularity of this ‘attraction’ – the bus shelter was the result of a petition written by Bobby, then a school-boy, to replace the bus shelter that had been demolished because it was unsafe. Anybody who has been to Shetland will appreciate the importance of a shelter from the constant wind that sweeps the islands. When the new shelter arrived, as if by magic, new things started to arrive, too:

A few days after the completion of the replacement shelter, a wicker sofa and table appeared in it with nobody claiming responsibility for putting them in. Soon afterwards, a small TV was added, closely followed by a ‘hot snacks’ counter. In the winter, a 2-bar heater was installed, allowing an even more comfortable wait and it wasn’t long before a carpet was fitted. By this time, The Bus Shelter (now capitals) had gained some publicity in and around Shetland. The visitors book was filling up and the comments indicated the demand for a website dedicated to the Unst Bus Shelter. (The Unst Bush Shelter Website)

Bobby’s Shelter (Photo M. Germana)

This year, the theme is regal: it would appear that Jubilee furore has reached far and wide! Bobby’s story is a tribute to the imagination and the community spirit, both of which seem to thrive in spite of, or perhaps because of the harsh conditions this part of the world is frequently exposed to.

‘Scalloway Castle’ (Photo M. Germana)

The spirit of a place cannot but be affected by the nature of its territory, its climate, the quality of light, and the terrifying beauty of treacherous shorelines haunted by the ghostly memories of many a shipwreck. Shetland’s strange appeal derives from the ‘highs’ induced by the freshest air you will inhale whilst watching westward at the sunset from the Eshaness Lighthouse viewpoint and the awareness that there is nothing but the rage of the roaring ocean till the next bit of land, America. As our journey started from one of the most densely populated areas of Western Europe, the vast openness of Shetland felt like the best detoxing strategy we could hope for. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this is to climb Shetland’s highest ‘marilyn‘ – as opposed to a munro! – Ronas Hill (North Mainland): after a deceptively challenging hike, on a clear day, you will feel like the whole world lies below you.

Finally, if quality accommodation is what you are after, then one of the most attrractive places to stay in Shetland, and a great base to explore the western parts of the mainland, is Busta House, a quaintly old-fashioned private hotel, where the Queen stayed on her visit to Shetland in 1960. Her Majesty, we were told, had tea in the elegant ‘long room’; we preferred the cosy bar, and the 200 kinds of whisky it offered to the novice drinkers like us! If gourmet food is what you are craving, head instead for the restaurant attached to unassuming Scalloway Hotel, not far from the beautiful castle that overlooks the bay of Shetland’s former capital.

‘Shopping Centre’, Yell (Photo M. Germana)

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