Betty, the Jarl’s mam, has got style, stepping from the Town Hall into a waiting two-seater sports car. The only thing missing was the red carpet, but I think she was walking on air anyway. She had just watched her three sons and a grandson parade before Shetland’s great and good with the 2009 Jarl’s Squad and her eldest boy had delivered a strong and thoughtful speech. For her it was a proud and emotional occasion. For me it was a chance to catch up with the kind wife who, almost 40 years ago, gave me eggs from her hens at Voehead in Baltasound where the Mouat clan grew up. It was a big deal to a short-arsed lad at the time and never forgotten.
While it was great to see her enjoying the big day, Up-Helly-A’ is obviously not about the Jarl’s mother and indeed there is no ceremonial role for her – not that she would want one. Nor is there one for Up-Helly-A’s First Lady, Morag, or her mother Lorraine, both of whom know a thing or two about role play. The rules are of course that Stephen can have his brothers Graham and Peter and his son Michael in his squad but not his sister Carol, up from Aberdeen for the occasion with one of her daughters, nor any member of the fairer sex. But having all the proud mams, grannies, sisters and nieces looking on at the guizers is of course a big part of what Lerwick Up-Helly-A’ is all about. Let’s be honest, it is probably the only time most of the men put on any kind of show to make their womenfolk feel proud.
Another Viking mother bursting with pride in the Town Hall audience this year was the council’s grand dame Florence Grains who also had three strapping sons in the Jarl’s ranks. Perhaps not present at the reception but also with three sons plus a husband in the squad was Gail Finnie, who had probably lost them to “the bunker” for most of the year.
The SIC’s annual civic reception began with the Jarl’s seven-piece band firing out tunes in exuberant fashion in the grand hall upstairs while guests took their seats and sipped a dram. After the band’s compere introduced his musical cohorts he, to everyone’s amusement, said he was Morgan Goodlad. He used to go by the name of Maurice Smith. The other Morgan Goodlad was sitting nearby with his mam and his sister Lily.
The ex-Jarls, some ancient, some too youthful to be in that club, filed in and ganged together in their traditional corner. Among the rows of councillors, important officials and the host and hostesses of the night’s halls was Scottish government minister Mike Russell who was doing the touristy thing, snapping off a few photos to show Alex and Nicola what we get up to. I bet old Winnie Ewing could tell him a few wild tales from her annual visits.
The business of nosing around to see who is in the room ends abruptly as up goes a loud “Whaay!” and the Jarl’s Squad bursts in accompanied by much roaring. We stand for some time awaiting signs of the great man. “Dis jarls is waar as weemin,” Viking Gavin Grains quips through his unfeasibly bushy beard.
Of the three Vikings lined up nearest me, one happens to be my ex-next door neighbour, one my old Unst school pal and the other my old teacher – this is indeed a tiny, close-knit community we live in. Geordie Jamieson – for he is the teacher and also the Jarl’s father-in-law – is in great form, chatting up the Town Hall lasses as they serve trays of drink.
Eventually the Up-Helly-A’ song fires up and Stephen, aka Othere Fra Hålogaland, makes his entrance sporting a broad grin and waving his axe before mounting the podium. His soldiers thrust their very pointy axes in the air in allegiance, nearly slicing off a reporter’s head (don’t be getting ideas, boys).
With their lightweight capes and lack of metal armour, the men do not look so encumbered and sweaty as those of years gone by. Studying their uniforms you begin to notice the clever designs and the countless hours of fine handiwork that have gone in. Perhaps the suits are less flashy this year but they have more of a ring of authenticity. Someone says it looks like they are wearing “giant Uggs” on their feet, which is apparently some kind of Australian footwear. They are not. They are specially made. Squad members prove less than keen to divulge where they got their “raven” wings from, which have taken a slight battering in the rain and wind earlier in the morning and require some preening. If they are from crows, as I’m eventually told, then it’s surely a public service dispensing with a few of them because they are taking the place over.
You may have heard a few disapproving comments around town about the Jarl’s polar bear skin. Up-Helly-A’ has never been, and obviously does not wish to be, politically correct. Stephen has the documentation to show the skin was obtained perfectly legally through a contact in Greenland. Apparently these great beasts are not as rare as you might think and in Canada alone licences are issued to shoot 500 a year. If you read the saga of Othere Fra Hålogaland in the festival programme you will learn he killed an “ice bear” with one swing of an axe as it attacked, apparently prompting the classic John Wayne-style line: “Weel boys you buggy flay yon wan and I’ll ging oot an fin annider een.” Mr Hålogaland apparently took to wearing polar bear on his back ever after. Who makes this stuff up?
The squad had a good spread of men from across Shetland with a strong Unst flavour of course, represented by at least nine from the island, native and settler. This, of course, found favour with council Convener Sandy Cluness, originally from Unst himself, who is a big Up-Helly-A’ man as well, declaring it the most important event in Shetland’s calendar. During the ritual of (occasionally inaudible) speeches, toasts and the exchange of gifts, he said there was heightened significance this year since it marked 50 years of drinking a toast to Lerwick’s twin town Måløy from the silver galley goblet presented to Lerwick Town Council by Måløy’s football team in 1958. Last year the convener had greatly enjoyed himself at the Tall Ships’ Race when it visited the Norwegian town, although he had heard the event went well over its council budget, which, he vouchsafed, “is not something that would ever happen with the SIC”.
Up-Helly-A’ fans worship their traditions, no matter how trivial, and the convener likes to oblige each year with a gentle dig at the local press, which gives him such an easy ride. He said he had been looking through The Shetland Times from 50 years ago, checking back on events. “To be honest, I found it a bit more interesting than the present day one,” he said, to much chortling around the room. Among the news of the time was that Jack Moar had done the Up-Helly-A’ bill, he said. “So, nothing much new there then.”
Next to him on the podium, from Norway, was Jan Holvik, the deputy mayor of Måløy. He told of how he first came to Shetland in 1959 on the deck of a Norwegian rescue boat to spend the summer at Jimmy Manson’s house and had a fantastic experience. Little did he think that 50 years later he would be standing taking part in the ceremony in the Town Hall where Mr Manson had brought him on that visit. His father used to think that some of the best fishing, for dogfish, was to the west side of Skerries, he said, and his enduring memory was the big boxes of Cadbury’s chocolates the fishermen used to return to Norway with.
When the Jarl’s turn came he recalled how he had started out in the hostel boys’ squad in 1973 with his brother Graham engaged as the musician – on the mouth organ! He had never dreamt he, an Unst man, would one day end up as the main man, following in the footsteps of Geordie Hunter, who was jarl in 1977, and, as Mr Hunter told me, another Unst jarl in 1932 – Peter Moar, father of the aforesaid grand old man of Up-Helly-A’, Jack Moar.
The Jarl said a thick skin was needed to be a member of his current squad which started out in 1960 and was known as the teachers’ squad before evolving into the old teachers’ squad, serving three times down the years as the Jarl’s Squad including two in a row – a feat he thought was not likely to be repeated. He talked warmly about the strength and camaraderie of Up-Helly-A’ and how it is much bigger than any one person.
His relationship with Måløy started in 1982 through Lerwick Spurs and he and Morag even spent their honeymoon there on a Spurs trip with his teammates as their chaperones. He said he was delighted to have a real Viking in his squad in the shape of Helge Hjelle, the Tall Ships organiser from the city who has been his friend since the 1982 trip.
Soon the Vikings had upped and gone, leaving their audience to mill around and weigh-up this year’s experience. Stephen’s sister was full of praise for her three “brilliant” brothers and was looking forward to her first night out at a hall in the festival in 30 years.
Her mam had put away her hankie and was set for a big night at Sound Hall. But first, a spin in that sports car.