OPINIONS in Scalloway are divided this week over the cancellation of the village’s Fire Festival, due to have taken place today.
The unprecedented decision was taken by the festival committee on Saturday because of the illness of prospective Guizer Jarl Michael Pottinger’s baby son.
Eight-month-old Charlie had been flown to hospital in Edinburgh the previous Sunday, where he was treated for pneumonia, a partially collapsed lung and a viral infection and was on a life support machine for nearly a week.
Mr Pottinger and his wife Cyndi were with their son and at the time of the committee meeting were still away. The family returned home on Tuesday, although Charlie is still unwell and will have an X-ray next month, according to his father.
Sources in Scalloway had told The Shetland Times last week, when news of Charlie’s illness first broke, that the event would go ahead. There would be “no cancellation”.
However, committee secretary Jim Pearson said this week that a decision had to be taken early before the halls started laying in supplies of food and drink, and in order to let the bands know in plenty of time.
This would also enable people to adjust their travel plans, although there were people travelling to the festival from as far away as Alaska whose arrangements could not be changed.
All tickets sold will be reimbursed.
Mr Pearson said that at the time of the decision, the position had been that the Guizer Jarl would not come home without his son and the Jarl’s Squad would not go out without their leader.
He said: “It would be impossible to go ahead with the Fire Festival without the Jarl’s Squad. They said they weren’t going out without the jarl and no-one knew if he would be there or not. A decision had to be made.”
According to sources in Scalloway, the vote to cancel was taken unanimously. A motion to postpone the festival until a later date, possibly March, was defeated by a single vote.
Suggestions circulating in the village that a deputy could have taken the jarl’s place were dismissed by the committee members, who said it was “[the jarl’s] year and his squad”.
The event will now take place at the same time next year, with the same Guizer Jarl and Guizer Jarl’s Squad.
However some people in the wider community are still unhappy and think that the festival should have gone ahead regardless, even with a deputy, or that the possibility of postponement should have at least been investigated. They called the situation a “mess” and said everyone had missed out, not least the halls, who stood to make a lot of money out of the event.
Others, however, said that cancellation was “absolutely the right decision”. The bill would have been made featuring the Guizer Jarl and the squads’ acts would have had references to him. In any case it was felt that he would not have wanted up to three days out of the house at this time, and postponement was not an option as there was still uncertainty over the baby’s condition.
Mr Pottinger himself could not have contemplated taking part in the Fire Festival when his son was so ill. At the time of the decision to cancel Charlie had still been on life support and doctors could not give him a time scale of events.
He said: “At an early stage I said I wouldn’t come back [without Charlie] and the squad agreed. I’m sorry it’s happened like this but the family has to come first. We’re looking forward to next year and hopefully it will go ahead as usual.”
This is the first time the festival has been cancelled since it was revived 30 years ago. The event comprises seven male squads who take it in turns to be the Jarl’s Squad. This rota system means that Mr Pottinger and his boys will take their place in the event next year in exactly the same way. There are also five female squads.
Cancellations in country festivals are not unheard of – in recent years Up-Helly-A’s in Brae and Hillswick have been cancelled for family reasons.
Last year there was debate about whether to cancel the Scalloway’s Fire Festival after a death in the community immediately prior to the event. However, the festival ultimately went ahead with two minutes silence in respect of the bereaved person. It was subsequently written into the constitution that the festival would not be cancelled should similar circumstances arise, although there would be two minutes silence before the burning of the galley.
This week alone there have been three deaths in the areas served by the Fire Festival – at Tingwall, Burra and Scalloway.