The Big Issue : Edition 566
THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 13–26 JUL 2018 23 XXX THE SHETLAND ISLANDS are pretty much a beautiful bunch of frozen rocks north of Scotland, so you can understand why a massive bonfire forms the centrepiece of their social calendar at their mid-winter fire festival. Up Helly Aa – not something often said in polite company south of the 60th parallel – is a spectacular celebration of the Shetlands’ Viking heritage and Norse tradition that the locals of Lerwick (the islands’ only real town) work toward all year round. More reminiscent of a few early Hägar the Horrible strips than that Vikings TV show I can’t recall the name of (Vikings? Sexy Vikings? Horny Men?), it grew, in part, out of the old local tradition of tar barrelling, which involved squads of drunken young men dragging barrels of burning tar around town and “making mischief”. For some reason this insanely dangerous activity was banned and replaced with a torch procession in the late 19th century. If you’ve played a bit of Skyrim you might recognise the title given to the Head of the Festival, a position that takes 16 years of committee service to earn – the Jarl. As boss Viking for the 24-hour Up Helly Aa festivities, the Guizer Jarl of Lerwick takes cosplay to a new level, donning armour and weaponry that would make the average live-action role-player weep with envy. While almost 1000 costumed men form ranks in the darkened streets of Lerwick on the evening of the last Tuesday in January, only the lead group get to wear proper Viking togs. These lucky few are the Jarl Squad, and they certainly have Goals. (It bears emphasising that, much like commenting on articles in The Australian, the official Lerwick procession itself is a dudes-only affair. I can only assume that in ancient Viking society there were no women; new Vikings were presumably hatched from eggs, not unlike a Kinder Surprise.) So, flaming torches held aloft, the Jarl Squad drag their leader on a replica Viking longship through the streets of Lerwick toward the burning site, trailed by the myriad of lesser squads. Yes, hundreds of white guys marching with torches in celebration of their “culture” is often cause for concern, but I’m assured it’s all above board in this case. In a nod to modern PC sensibilities, the Jarl is allowed to leave the ship before his squad hurl their torches into the hull, and the main event – burning the bejesus out of a perfectly good boat that took the community four blimmin’ months to build – begins. But Up Helly Aa is far from over. After the pyromania, the guizer squads rotate around a dozen halls in the town, performing, dancing, feasting and guzzling at each in a sequence that stretches right through the night. Viking heads will be sore in the morning, but recovery must be swift – before long it will be time to begin planning for next year. by Chris Kennett (@chriskennett) » For more details, visit uphellyaa.org. fIre �ICe fIRE �ICE GOOD OLD PYROMANIAC FUN IN SCOTLAND’S SHETLAND ISLANDS.