Saturday, February 9, 2008

A thousand Viking men with torches

I am now back on the Scottish mainland, having spent the past week in Aberdeen and talking with the fine folks at Fisheries Research Services about their research and learning lots about Scotland’s fishing industry. But before heading south, I first took a detour north to the Shetland Islands for Lerwick’s annual fire festival, reputedly both the largest and most famous fire festival in Great Britain. Up Helly A’ is largely a celebration of Shetland’s Viking heritage – a group of the leading men in town spend all year designing unique Viking costumes and building a Viking longship all in preparation for the final Tuesday in January, when they don their costumes and after dark parade through town with torches and set fire to the galley they spent all year building. Crazy, perhaps, but also completely brilliant.

Even though this is ostensibly a celebration of the Viking era, the festival itself is a relatively recent development. The official Up Helly A’ program suggests that the tradition can be traced at earliest back to period following the Napoleonic wars, “when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms” which they made use of in initiating festivities in town during the darkest days of the year around Christmas and New Year’s. These festivities seem to have gradually developed from a general raucous mayhem – “blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting” on Christmas eve in 1824 – to include the more elaborate and dangerous custom of setting fire to tar barrels and conveying them through the streets by a “motley mob, wearing masks for the most part.” As the town became more crowded and the fiery Yuletide festivities more dangerous, citizens not actively participating in the festivities began to complain, and the town eventually banned tar barreling in the early 1870s.

The town was not about to do away with its revelry, however, and so around 1870 a group of young men began to shape the proceedings into a more structured festival, including coining the term Up Helly A’, introducing more elaborate costumes (disguises – which make those who dress up “guizers”), and establishing the torchlight procession. The Viking themes entered the festival gradually, with the first Viking longship introduced in the 1880s, the first chief guizer or “Guizer Jarl” in 1906, and his accompanying squad of Vikings – the “Guizer Jarl’s Squad” becoming a regular feature after World War I.

The 2008 Guizer Jarl in his Viking regalia:

And some of his Jarl squad members:

There are many similar fire festivals throughout the Shetlands, but none so large or so formal as the Up-Helly-A’ celebration that has become one of the central moments of the year in Lerwick. Today the traditions are well-established and involve an intense schedule of events throughout the day in which nearly everyone in town participates. On the morning of the last Tuesday in January, the Guizer Jarl’s Squad rises early and marches through the town with their galley, stopping at the Market Cross in the center of town to put up the Bill, a decorated, ten-foot high proclamation with local humor and gossip.

This year’s proclamation. Some of the references I could pick up – the red lettering at the beginning refers to this year’s Guizer Jarl, Roy Leask, who runs a construction company called DITT; and there has been local controversy over a new organic cod farm in the Shetlands called “No Catch” which advertises its product as superior to wild-caught cod but has had some recent financial difficulties, hence “No money, no fish, no future – No Catch?” But, as I had been told by most of the locals, most of the content is completely incomprehensible unless you know the local gossip.

The Guizer Jarl’s squad then continues on to the harbor, where the galley – which had been kept completely secret while being built and has not been seen before by any of the public not involved in the Jarl Squad or the process of building the ship – is placed on display throughout the day. This year’s galley was very attractive, I thought – too bad it only gets one day of glory before being set on fire.

The squad is then whisked off to make the “rounds,” appearing at local hospitals and schools and generally being the center of attention throughout the town. I caught up with them at Lerwick’s new museum, where they mingled with the crowd (one guizer even let me try on his helmet), posed for photographs, and sang the traditional Up Helly A’ song.

If you want to sing along, here are the lyrics to the chorus:

Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,
Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;
Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past;
We answer it “A-oi”!

Roll their glory down the ages,
Sons of warriors and sages,
When the fight for Freedom rages,
Be bold and strong as they!

I wasn’t sure exactly where the idea to sing this next song came from, but it was certainly a wonderful day – great weather, and as I heard the Guizer Jarl telling a reporter, it was the best day of his life. Make sure you listen to this one, and then just take a minute to think about the ridiculousness of a bunch of men singing this while dressed in chain mail and helmets and carrying battle axes.

I missed the initial procession of the Jarl Squad in the morning, but a few hours later got to see a sort-of repeat performance: the procession of the Junior Jarl Squad. Since the 1950s, there has been a parallel version of Up Helly A’ for young school-age boys, who pick a Guizer Jarl to head a squad of boys dressed as Vikings, build their own junior galley, and hold their own procession on the day of Up Helly A.’

This is a clip of their procession through town, led by the Lerwick and Kirkwall pipe bands ahead of the galley and the mini-Vikings.

They had rather impressive costumes, given that they all had to be entirely made and financed by the boys’ families, and seemed duly happy to have been given this position of honor.

The Junior Guizer Jarl being led along behind his galley:

The mini-Vikings of the Junior Jarl squad:

As they marched through the town, marshaled by their teachers and the police and followed by a flock of admiring family and friends, they raised their axes and cheered – everything from “three cheers for my mom!” to “three cheers for not being in school!” It must be pretty exciting to be a kid in Lerwick on Up Helly A,’ way better than the kind of fun I had in school dressing up for Halloween, though I also would have been incredibly jealous of the boys, since even in the junior squads, they follow the tradition of only allowing male participation. (I could complain about the gender bias, for which the arguments supporting it as “tradition” seem rather out of date, but it’s not my town or festival, so that’s the business of the women of Lerwick. But I must admit, I’d like to see a group of women form a squad and stir up the “traditionalists” by trying to participate.)

The real highlight of the day, though, was the torchlight parade. I went with the two lovely women who graciously hosted me while I was in Lerwick, who found us a good spot up on a wall overlooking the path of the parade and the site where they burned the galley. People filled the streets all along the parade route, and just as everyone finished collecting, all the streetlights went out. Meanwhile, across town, the Jarl’s squad of Vikings and forty-five other squads of men with all assortment of themed costumes, comprising a total of 941 men – collected their torches and arranged themselves to begin the parade.

As the torches were lit and they set off down the parade route, the glow of the torchlight illuminating the town was indescribable – eerie and magnificent.

It’s hard to show in a picture quite how it looks to watch the streets filled with nearly a thousand men with torches, but it was impressive. I can see how an approaching hoard of torch-bearing Vikings would have struck fear in anyone’s heart. (Though, after sitting outside waiting for the parade to start, we were looking forward to having all those torches march past us.)

And as they passed us, I got to see the costumes that each of the squads had chosen. Other than the Guizer Jarl’s squad, they had nothing to do with Vikings – it looked more like Mardi Gras or Halloween. Apparently, so many men take advantage of this opportunity to dress up as women that Up Helly A’ has gained the informal nickname of Transvestite Tuesday.

There were certainly a lot of women, but my favorites were the sheep. Here’s the squad of sheep marching past, carrying torches and singing the Up Helly A’ song.

At the end of the parade, all the guizers assembled around the galley at the burning site in the center of town. The Guizer Jarl got in the boat, surrounded by men with torches (I think this must be why they pick someone well-liked in the town – otherwise, I think he’d be a little nervous getting in a wooden boat surrounded by men about to set it on fire), thanked everyone who had helped put the festival together, finishing by calling for three cheers for Up Helly A’.

And then, the moment they had been waiting for, everyone threw in their torches and set the galley on fire.

As the galley burned, the guizers all set off for a night of visiting halls around the town to perform skits in stages of progressive inebriation and degenerating understandability until the early hours of Wednesday morning (an official public holiday, since nobody is fit for work).

It’s certainly strange – that men dress as women and sheep carrying torches and singing about Viking heritage, that they spend a year building a boat for the express purpose of burning it, that the Jarl Squad members spend all year growing their beards so they can look like proper Vikings – but I think that’s what I liked about it. It may not be an “authentic” Viking celebration, but it’s certainly an authentic Lerwick tradition in all its oddities.

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