In Yell and Unst January and February is a time of frantic activity preparing for the three Up-Helly-A’s held annually in the North Isles.
The first of them is Uyeasound on 12th February. Uyeasound has a very long and proud tradition of Up-Helly-A’ back to 1911, making it second only to Lerwick in terms of age.
This year Geoffrey Priest from Baltasound is the Guizer Jarl and he has a squad of 21 Vikings and his three grandsons. Geoffrey is well known as a builder and a craftsman and for his big year he has set himself the very considerable task of building a new galley.
In Uyeasound the galley is kept as a showpiece to be taken out and shown on special occasions and this new one will be used likewise. Geoffrey is doing the work by himself, working in the galley shed every spare minute that he has, while other members of the Jarl’s Squad are making all the other component parts of the festival.
Most years they burn an old boat on the night but this year the old galley will meet her end. She was built for the year 2000 and after 10 years Geoffrey feels that the time is right for a new galley.
He is somewhat tight-lipped about his work but he says that the design is different from any other galley in Shetland. Needless to say he will not reveal the name of the new longship until Up-Helly-A’ day.
Well over 100 guizers will carry torches and, in Uyeasound, the torches are made in the traditional way with hessian wrapped around a stick soaked in paraffin and coated with cement. Torches are made two weeks in advance.
Friday 26th February is the date for the Cullivoe Up-Helly-A’. For a great many years this festival has always been on the last weekend of the month. This way everyone knows exactly when it comes around and can plan accordingly. Many students and other exiles come home for the weekend that, in North Yell, is a highlight of the winter.
This year’s jarl, Martin Henderson, is a Cullivoe man through and through despite the fact that he lives in Lerwick. He is yet another that has emerged from the “jarl production line” that is the Cullivoe Primary School. He has been in school squads since he was five years old and has continued ever since.
Martin comes from a family steeped in Up-Helly-A’. His father Robert was jarl in 1969 and his two older brothers Trevor and Steven are also former jarls. By tradition and by the format of the festival the Guizer Jarl’s Squad is smaller than in most places. Martin’s squad is nine in number.
Maybe it is because he is a musician himself (he is piano player in the Cullivoe Band) but musicians are well to the fore in the squad. There are two junior members, Lee Watt and Martin’s son Jacob. Martin’s main supporters will be ex-jarl Euan Henderson and jarl-designate Campbell Dickie.
It is the right of every Cullivoe Guizer Jarl to appoint his successor and Campbell is an apt choice. He, too, was in school squads from an early age and he would almost certainly have been jarl already but for the fact that he and his family have lived in Scotland for some years.
In recent years a visit to the Burravoe Hall on the Saturday has become the norm. A day of wonderful hospitality and music takes place before the concert and guizers’ hop in the Cullivoe Hall at night.
The third of the North Isles Up-Helly-A’s takes place in Norwick, Unst, on the 27th, the same day the hop is on in Cullivoe. Here the Guizer Jarl is Fraser Paul from Haroldswick.
Fraser has a squad of 12 adult Vikings and four juniors. As always the lighting up will be on the now-disused Floggie road and the procession will march down to the beautiful Norwich beach to the burning site. Afterwards there will be a dance in the Haroldswick Hall.
The recent frost and snow is not to everyone’s liking but it does make for some stunning scenery.
Perhaps it is the wildlife that comes out worst. Whooper swans are among the birds that are a common sight during a Shetland winter. They come here because the lochs where they usually live are frozen but this winter they are out of the frying pan into the fire.
The loch in Gutcher often has swans at this time of year but it is frozen over as well. This loch is tidal – spring tides flow in with result that the loch water is brackish. This sometimes means that it does not freeze as other lochs do, it sometimes turns to slush.
The swans cannot feed in it but even worse it kills the fish. This was clearly seen in the very harsh winter of 1979. When the thaw came scores of trout were washed ashore providing a feast for the birds. This had a devastating effect on fish stocks.
In the years to follow few fish were caught but they recovered and in recent seasons the Gutcher Loch has provided rich picking for anglers.
More New Year celebrations
Even though the festive season is behind us there is still news coming in of the way that various communities celebrate Christmas and the New Year.
In North-A-Voe in Yell there is a tradition of going from house to house in guizing on New Year’s Eve.
One resident told me that her mother could remember when guizers were dressed in straw costumes, not just guizing hats. Nowadays a guizing hat is a rare sight and Robert Williamson of Camb in North-A-Voe is one of the few people who can still make them.
Professor Terry Gunnell from the university in Iceland has made an academic study of the use of straw in costume and on one of his several visits to Shetland he visited Robert and others in North-A-Voe as part of his researches.
The last house that the guizers visited, in days gone by, was always Kaywick, a lonely old house that is now empty. The woman of the house always had a huge pot of mince and tatties to feed the weary travellers as well as tea and fancies.
The guizing in North-A-Voe has evolved over the years and the year 2000 marked a change in the routine. Some of the younger men decided to have a torchlit procession to celebrate the millennium and so it has been ever since, albeit with one or two variations.
The torches are made in the same way as the torches at the Cullivoe Up-Helly-A’ – from rolls of paper towelling nailed to a stick and dipped in paraffin. They even have the equivalent of a “galley shed” to work in but no more than 30 torches are required.
Guizing starts at Camb and finishes at Stivla, the furthest in part of the village. This year they had with them a fiddle player, John Irvine, and guitar player David Gear, who were a wonderful enhancement to the company and in every house the folk wanted more and more tunes.
Torches were lit up at Stivla and the 27 guizers began the long procession to the burning site at Seafield. Folk of all ages took part, the youngest were Carly and Isla Smith, both in single figures, and the oldest was their grand uncle Alan Slater. We will not mention what age he is!
The night was crystal clear, frosty and the procession was a splendid spectacle seen by many in Mid Yell on the opposite side of the voe.
On reaching Seafield the torches were thrown on to the bonfire, which had been prepared in advance, and all this happened in an action packed evening in time to allow everyone to disperse and welcome in the New Year either in their own home or with friends.