“The best day of my life.” That was how junior Jarl Kristoffer Thomason described his day of glory on Tuesday, a day of leading his loyal band of Vikings through his town and which ended with the burning of his galley.
For Kristoffer, 13, being the junior Jarl was the culmination a short lifetime of waiting. He had always wanted to be junior Jarl, he said, especially since he was in a squad in 1997 at the tender age of one and a half.
This week as Thorvald Thidrandisson his dream came true. He chose this hero because Thorvald’s boat ran aground in Fetlar en route from his native Iceland to Norway – and Kristoffer’s dad Angus is from Fetlar. The galley also had a Fetlar connection, being named Da Hoga after a headland in the isle.
The saga relates that after losing his boat, Thorvald, the younger son of a noble family, was stranded with his companions with nothing but the clothes he stood up in and a spear. He received hospitality from the lord of Hjaltland – and later he was to make good by rescuing Droplaug, the daughter of a chieftain imprisoned by an ogre near Ronas Hill. In the best saga tradition, Thorvald managed to slay the ogre and win the hand of Droplaug in marriage, as well as treasure from the ogre’s hoard.
For Kristoffer too, circumstances came together to produce what he described as “the most honourable day of my life”. He won a close vote among class mates in first and second years at the Anderson High School to become junior Jarl, which he described as being “absolutely amazing”, and gave him a sense of privilege. Then the planning began.
It was “extremely exciting”, said Kristoffer, who, as he had so much wanted to be junior Jarl, already had ideas about his costume.
The public saw the fruits of the labour of local folk including parents, grandparents and other relatives and friends of squad members and the boys themselves in the making of the outfits and axes, shields and helmets.
The green crushed velvet kirtles contrasted with the white sheepskin worn on the shoulders (the junior Jarl had deerskin) and the white fur boots. Unlike the adult Jarl’s Squad, which had opted for flesh-coloured leggings, the young squad sported the traditional bare legs.
Thorvald and the 14-strong squad of friends he had chosen paraded through Lerwick in the morning closely behind the Guizer Jarl and his men. When the seniors went to the Town Hall, the youngsters had Commercial Street to themselves (apart from the hundreds of tourists who had turned out to see them), with the galley in pride of place. Painted white – the same colour as the adult squad’s longship Is Bjorn – the juniors’ Da Hoga, with its red and white square sail sporting the black raven, was pulled along on its blue ropes by a group of boys, directed by members of the committee. The crowd loved them and the boys responded with axe-raising and cheering.
Eventually the boys left the street and headed to Sound Primary School. The galley was taken to Islesburgh, where it was on show for the afternoon. It made a re-appearance in Lower Hillhead after darkness fell for the grand torchlit procession before its ritual destruction.
A smell of paraffin filled the air and the brass band tuned up as the juniors assembled for the galley’s final journey. Parents took photos of their sons and reminded them to sing before torches were lit at 5.30pm precisely. The junior Jarl’s squad led and other guizers, aged 11 to 14 and wearing anything from camoflauge outfits to fuzzy wigs, followed behind, guizers from former years helping them with fit the torches into the containers on their belts.
They paraded down the Lower Hillhead and into King Erik Street, watched by a crowd almost as dense as that enjoyed by the adult squads. An innovation this year was the turning movement at the crossroads with St Olaf Street before heading into the burning site – a display they had practised in the AHS gym hall. It proved a dramatic feature with the brass band in the middle and one which scattered any onlookers who had strayed from behind the barriers into the street.
The last rites of the Da Hoga were performed with due ceremony. After the last notes of the band faded the torches were thrown, landing like giant matchsticks on either side of the deck. The boat burnt fiercely and the sparks shot almost vertically in the near windless conditions as the crowd started moving away, only to regroup an hour later.
Kristoffer said the next day that he had loved walking through the streets with the guizers and seeing everybody. It was almost impossible to pick out a highlight as “everything was good”. And the good times were not over – his duties would continue at the Jarl’s dance and the hop.