If you didn’t know there was something special going on in Lerwick on Tuesday morning the traffic-stopping crowds would have alerted you.
People gathered outside the Royal British Legion at 9.45am to see Guizer Jarl Stephen Mouat (or Othere Fra Hålogaland) with his band of bearded Vikings – already nearly two hours into the festivities – and the junior Jarl plus his squad process in triumph into the town, accompanied by Lerwick Brass Band.
And, of course, the galley. The splendid Is Bjorn (ice bear) formed the centrepiece of the parade, its white timbers and silver dragon’s head contrasting with the fine red outfits of the Jarl’s Squad. The junior squad with green outfits and white sheepskins provided another burst of colour.
The marching tunes gave pomp to the occasion as hundreds of locals and tourists, kitted out in waterproofs against the fine drizzle, lined the route and followed behind the Vikings as they passed along Commercial Road.
Nursery classes in high-visibility vests were there and so were people of all ages, from those in prams to those in wheelchairs. Families had come to see the spectacle, with young boys with toy axes and horned helmets.
Plenty of expensive cameras were in evidence, some protected under polythene, as people recorded the event, while those lucky enough to live nearby watched from open windows. Even the essy kert had to make way for the procession and stood immobile on the pavement outside the Chinese takeaway.
The Jarl and his squad of 56 bearded men and the junior Jarl Kristoffer Thomason with his 14- strong squad moved at a steady pace along the traffic-free Esplanade, cheering and raising their heavy axes, and turned into Commercial Street at Church Road.
All the shops were open but there cannot have been many customers. Staff crowded into doorways to see the Jarl’s squad and admire the regalia – the heavy scarlet wool capes over wine-coloured suede kirtles, the two reds working well together and providing a regal appearance; the pale leather breastplates, which guizers had had to cut out to their own shape and fasten with hundreds of rivets; the shields with crimson backgrounds and wrought steel ornamentation, designed by Forbes Hogg; the aluminium axes and the magnificent soaring black wings of the helmets, made of copper dipped in chrome and decorated with engraved stainless steel.
And most of all they wanted to see the Jarl, marching at the front, apart from his men and distinguished by his shiny-scaled breastplate, raven shield and white polar bear skin reaching nearly to the ground. “Pretty good”, was one visitor’s verdict.
The crowd was three, four or five deep along the road and became denser at the Market Cross, where Jarl’s Squad and band stopped to examine the ritual ridicule of the proclamation. The tourists must have wondered what it was all about but took photos nevertheless, and gathered round for a rendering of the Up-Helly-A’ song. The Guizer Jarl managed very well, standing in splendour at the cross, leading the singing with flair and with the words clearly audible.
Then along the rest of da Street, everyone jostling to see the guizers and a considerable crowd viewing from the elevated position of the walls of Fort Charlotte. And more people in the Fort Cafe itself, the hunger-inducing smell of fish and chips wafting along the street.
Down to Alexandra Wharf to be re-united with the galley (which had been carefully reversed in en route) for a photo opportunity. Guizers assembled on Is Bjorn and were bunched up into an orderly group as photographer John Coutts waited on his step ladder. The public were kept back at a respectful distance by barriers manned by security staff (although LHD staff had a bird’s eye view from the balcony) and the Jarl did an impromptu dance on board as he waited.
People in the crowd held cameras high to take photos of anything they could as others scanned the galley for kent faces. “Where is he, they all look the same. . . “ And right on cue, Oscar Charlie flew in from the south, passing low over the galley in a scything movement and scaring a flock of scories.
Eventually the barriers were pulled back and the crowd had access to the Vikings, posing for photographs and trying to hold the axes. The Jarls’s wife Morag climbed onto the galley for a family snapshot to shouts of “Give her a kiss.”
The squad had to be hurried out so as not to be late for the civic reception at the Town Hall. They passed through Fort Charlotte to drink from the ceremonial goblet from Måløy and entered the Town Hall with shouts and cheering.
The fine rain had stopped and conditions promised to became benign for the rest of the day, a memorable one for the Vikings and one that was the culmination of months of work.