Third of four Nicolson jarls takes his turn
He first went out in the Jarl’s Squad at the age of six with Tommy Simpson in 1968. He was a regular in the Galley Shed before and after his father Jim was Guizer Jarl just over a decade later, in 1979.
And if this year’s Jarl David Nicolson wasn’t already sufficiently steeped in Up-Helly-A’ tradition, his brother Graham was Jarl in 2007 and his other brother John will keep up the family tradition in 2019.
But in the 150th anniversary year of J J Haldane Burgess, who according to Brydon Leslie’s fine new book Borgar Jarl did so much to give the annual festival its appearance and grounding in Norse mythology, what does it mean to the 49-year-old T&N joiner and former RAF man?
“For me it puts Shetland on the map,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s a good advertisement of what Shetland is good at – putting on a world-renowned event. We’re a peerie island and we do it very well.”
He said Up-Helly-A’ helped to bring the community together, although the run-up to Tuesday’s fiery celebrations had been very personal for his squad, which will number 80 in all – 57 including the Jarl, nine musicians and 14 boys.
“It’s a complete cross-section of guys. I come in at night and the boys are beavering away. You’ve got a sergeant, you’ve got a deputy chief executive of the port authority, you’ve got a painter, you’ve got a roadie man, you’ve got a businessman, so it’s a great leveller.
“And they form friendships that maybe you wouldn’t have expected.”
There will be 963 guizers this year, up marginally on last year, with 855 carrying torches in Tuesday night’s procession.
David said he believed familiarity in a period of great change might explain Up-Helly-A’s enduring appeal.
“I’m a traditionalist. And I feel a lot of pride because I’m following in the footsteps of dad. But things change, everything changes. Maybe tradition appeals because of that.”
David saw the world during his time in the RAF, which he joined in 1983 after completing his joinery apprenticeship.
He enjoyed the military – “the way of life, the discipline, the camaraderie” – but left in the mid-1990s after a final posting to RAF Saxa Vord.
For the last 12 years he has made the head and tail of the galley, including his own this year.
His daughter Suzanne, 21, has painted the Bill head and his son Stuart, 18, will be out with him in the squad.
He has taken the name Böthvar Egilsson, described as having within him “the spirit of a true berserker”.