Good weather and biggest turnout for 14 years make for impressive spectacle
A trademark assortment of guizers descended on the old town for Tuesday night’s impressive-as-ever procession in greater numbers than the streets of Lerwick have seen in January since the mid-1990s.
The slight chill in the air which accompanied the heightened sense of anticipation as 7.30pm approached soon dissipated as the maroon went off above the Town Hall and nearly 886 paraffin-soaked torches were lit in tandem to give that familiar feeling of warm radiance to guizers and onlookers alike.
Guizer Jarl Stephen Mouat and his 57-strong squad led the doomed galley Is Bjorn (meaning ice bear) along the half-mile parade route, taking in the Lower Hillhead, down the Town Hall brae, along St Olaf Street and King Harald Street before eventually descending on the King George V playing fields to give the galley its trademark fiery send-off.
There are few surprises at an Up-Helly-A’ procession – continuity is the name of the game for this festival and it is unlikely that those taking part would want it any other way – so we had the usual assortment of animal costumes and a numerous array of hairy cross-dressers.
Following in the jarl squad’s footsteps were a bunch of ducks, penguins, stray members of the Tartan Army, Arab sheikhs (a reference to the new consortium which arrived at Sullom Voe last year and a squad whose act revolved around our convener), a not particularly menacing bunch of Toony hoodies, some obligatory Mexicans, Irish leprechauns, sailors, auld wives and magnies. Many marched gleefully with a confident swagger and broad smiles, waving at loved ones, sporadically breaking into song and fobbing off the occasional good-natured heckler, while some – it must be said – trudged around with a barely disguised apathy.
They could scarcely have picked a better night for the fire festival, with the early day drizzle a long forgotten memory; an almost crystal clear sky and the absence of the moon left the centre of the town in complete darkness save for the bright orange glow of the torches, and the odd glow stick enterprisingly taken along by youngsters, presumably looking to navigate through the pitch black streets without knocking anyone over.
Incidentally, on the fringes of the procession us lane-dwellers once again had to put up with a few unwanted instances of urine streaming down our walls, paths and occasionally doorways – this is not a dig at the guizers themselves, for whom nature inevitably calls after a few drams, but it would be nice if some portakabins could be provided – as they would for any alcohol-fuelled gathering on a similar scale on the mainland.
The usual throng of tourists and Up-Helly-A’ newcomers seemed bemused and enthralled in almost equal measure by what does remain a truly unique spectacle for the uninitiated, who witnessed 970 guizers spread across 46 squads – the biggest number taking part in the procession for some 14 years – striding up and down the streets to marching songs for nearly an hour, before the whoosh and bang of a solitary flare in the night sky heralded the beginning of the end for hundreds of hours of careful craftsmanship in the Galley Shed.
Mouat, silhouetted standing in the stern of the Viking longship, judiciously stepped out of the galley just before 8.30pm, ahead of the traditional short, ominous blast of a bugle, which prompted cheers and a flurry of what seemed like hundreds of camera flashes as the hundreds of torches – still just about alight – were flung into Is Bjorn.
The galley’s mast immediately went up in flames but stood strong for a good five minutes before its symbolic collapse as the guizers and the Lerwick brass band, minus their Kirkwall counterparts this year, launched into a stirring rendition of The Norseman’s Home. Then came a short but spectacular display of fireworks before the guizers and hall-goers left the smouldering galley and trotted off for the serious business: their 12-hour appointment with some hard liquor, dancing and assorted shenanigans around the dozen halls.