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Ann's diary » Archives » February 2006 » Up Helly Aa

[Previous entry: "Reading for Shetland"] [Next entry: "The launch"]

Thursday, February 2nd 2006 : "Up Helly Aa"

I arrived into Shetland at dawn on Tuesday on the northlink ferry. A clear frosty day. The right way to arrive in the island. The last Tuesday in January. Up Helly Aa. This forms the climax to my book. I've never been to the Shetland Fire Festival before. What if I got it all wrong?

I hadn't expected the scale of the thing. Nearly a thousand men in the parade. People start to gather before seven to watch. Just a sliver of moon and the stars very bright. Then the squads appear, lining up on each side of a straight road. They're in fancy dress. There are blue cows, penguins, men in fishnets and sequins... Down the middle a band marches, stirring up the crowd. At seven thirty the street lights go out, a rocket shoots into the sky and as if by magic, at least by some well practised sleight of hand, the torches are lit. We can feel the heat of them from where we're standing. The parade starts, led by the galley which has been months in the making, the Jarl's Squad dressed as Vikings, then all the Guizers.

Guizers at Up Helly Aa

We can't see much of the burning - too many people gathered around the playground where it'll take place. The PA system booms.

'Three cheers for the boys who built the galley.'

'Three cheers for the boys who lit the torches.'

'Three cheers for the Guizer Jarl.'

And behind me a voice. Female. Shetland. 'Three bloody cheers for when they let the women in.'

Firing the galley

At last all the guizers are gathered around the galley. A row at a time they throw the torches into the boat. From where we stand all we can see are the flames licking around the top of the mast. At the top there's a pennant with the design of a raven on it. I wish I'd known about that at the time I wrote the book. It would have been a nice touch.

The burning longship

Photos © Marsali Taylor 2006

Posted by Ann at 03:57 PM GMT

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