Freedom for the jarl – but damage comes at a cost
On a dreich morning the waiting public got their first view of the 70-strong Jarl’s Squad.
The splendidly-clad guizers were in tan quilted tunics with green trim, with guizing guardsmen in black and led by the impressive figure of Olav Haraldsson in sea green cape, steel breastplate and winged helmet.
After an official photo at the harbour it was on up to the town hall, with music from Lerwick Brass Band, cheering, marshals ordering the procession and keeping the public at bay and a gaggle of photographers running ahead to take snaps. They were joined by staff from the shops and police taking photos at the road junctions.
An accordion and fiddle band played as guests assembled at the town hall, and a hefty cheering announced the arrival of the Jarl’s Squad, followed by “King Olav” and a singing of the Up Helly Aa Song, with lots of raised axes, spears and another implement, the cross of St Olaf. The sing of the Jarl’s Squad song, Daydream Believer, followed.
Council convener Malcolm Bell, speaking in full regalia under the raven banner – one also fluttered atop the building – said he had been trying to dig the dirt on Neil for his speech, but failed to come up with anything.
He then made a reference to an ex-jarl’s granddaughter, who loved an Up-Helly-A’ DVD but liked to skip the part with “the man with the big necklace”.
The town hall, Mr Bell noted, was the seat of democracy where politics was transacted for all but one day a year. And for this day, when Up-Helly-A’ festivities take over, he announced to loud applause there would be a new dance: “two steps forward, one step back and a sidestep”.
As for the Guizer Jarl, he was the definition of the Shetland male who could “spend every minute of the last 15 years in the galley shed and feel no guilt,” and still be a road engineer “in his spare time”.
As King Olav he was going to tear up the Hillhead tonight, where the crossings would be re-named penguin crossings (in homage to the Guizer Jarl’s nickname).
Mr Bell paid tribute to the former jarls who had gone to their own Valhalla, including William “Feejur” Tait, who had taken on the same Viking persona in 1960.
The convener gave the present incumbent the freedom of Lerwick for 24 hours (damages to be taken out of the roads budget), and invited everyone to toast Shetland’s friendship town of Måløy, for which he drank from a replica silver galley, saying “skol”.
Then it was the jarl’s turn to speak. He emphasised the historical links with previous jarls and was moved that the late Feejur had been the same character, and that the current junior jarl was representing Magnus the Good who had been Olav’s son.
In real life, the Guizer Jarl had returned from south to Shetland in 2000, and decided he either had to get married or join the Up-Helly-A’ committee – and he was convinced he made the right choice.
He praised the local craftsmanship in the outfits – the quilted and studded pigskin tunics with rabbit skin trim and his cloak were all made locally, as were the shields, helmets and chain mail. These had “raised the bar”, he said.
The planning had taken 18 months with ideas for the outfits picked up from a Japanese game. The padding was designed to make them flexible, and warm enough not to need a cape. The axes could be worn ornamentally on the back.
And how did he feel to be the most important man in Shetland’s most important festival? “It was like being a king, standing up there and saying what I want,” he said. And regarding the freedom of Lerwick: “It feels great but I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.”
Then came the singing of The Norseman’s Home and off on the bus for another part of the great day.