Spirit of latter-day Vikings triumphs over the damp weather

Guizer Jarl Rae Simpson with his daughter Avie and son Findlay on the galley. Click on image to enlarge.
Guizer Jarl Rae Simpson with his daughter Avie and son Findlay on the galley. Click on image to enlarge.

The rain battering off the Velux in the night made you vexed for Rae, no doubt lying wide awake as his alarm clock raced towards the biggest day of his life. Sheets of wet were blowing in on a southerly force five and around the isles Shetland ponies parked their ample erses into the wind, not looking amused.

Rae and his merry men might have been forgiven similar long faces as they peered out into the gloom while making ready for their show to begin. Instead they turned out to be one of the happiest, most enthusiastic Jarl’s Squads seen for years – all big smiles and exuberant roars as they platshed around town on their morning rounds.

They call them “the musicians’ squad” with no shortage of minstrels to call on for their acts over the years including Davie Henry, Grant Nicol, Paul Johnston, Bobby Gear, Stewart Isbister, John Boxwell and Craig Watt.

When Guizer Jarl Rae – transformed in full regalia including raven-winged helmet and white reindeer cloak into Sigurd Snake-Eye Ragnarsson – and his 60-strong squad step out to brave the rain after a fortifying breakfast at Islesburgh Community Centre, it is  still dark. It is one of those days that will not get much lighter.

From the Legion they march “in-o’er” at 9.45, tailed by the Junior Jarl’s Squad and Lerwick Brass Band, ditching the galley next to the Bressay ferry terminal. Crowds lining the pavements greet the guizers through the gloom with a sea of camera flashes before following the circus as it moves onwards into town.

Ex-jarl Harry “Currants” is outside his shop videoing and he gets a big smackeroonie on the cheek from the junior Jarl’s mum Morag Maver, one of the ’60s singing Thomson Sisters from Unst.

Passing Victoria Pier the Vikings disappear momentarily into a pall of smoke coming from fistfuls of sparklers being waved about by the torch boys. They wind their way onto Da Street, past a row of mothers with prams, to gather around The Proclamation at the Market Cross.

This year, instead of the traditional painting, the bill head is the fruit of an amazing feat of endurance by Rae’s wife Leeza, his mum Ann, and Louise and Lara Jamieson who, over the course of two years, did more than 360,000 cross-stitches to produce a stunning piece of Viking saga art, protected from the drizzle by a sheet of Perspex.

The brass band desist and Rae issues a series of thank yous, followed by rounds of three cheers, a lot of “Whaay!” and some general purpose roaring.

Jarl Simpson leads his men down Da Street. Click on image to enlarge.
Jarl Simpson leads his men down Da Street. Click on image to enlarge.

Soon the Vikings have formed a march again to stride along Commercial Street and down to rejoin their galley at Alexandra Wharf, marshalled by committee members, smart in their long black Russian mafia-style coats.

In a nice touch, Rae hauls his daughter aboard his ship to stand alongside all the men and boys, including his son Finlay. There are many more Hip Hip Hoorays (whatever happened to the third Hip that they used to give in the old days of the British Empire and, if the custom is a relic of that era, should we maybe not swap it for something more Nordic?).

The formalities over, a melee ensues as wives and families surge through the barriers to pose with their men, joined by hordes of well-marshalled primary school bairns from all over Shetland and the obligatory swarming pack of photographers with their long lenses.

Viking Davie Henry soon has two bouncing babies pinned to his breast and looks every bit the cute and cuddly photo opportunity. Bobby Gear gives out a convincing throaty roar for his camera-wielding fan club, which includes his mum Isobel from Foula.

Then it is on to the civic reception at the Town Hall, the raven banner floating oer it.

Politicians, civic dignitaries and business leaders, as well as former jarls and the current jarl’s family, enjoy a dram as the jarl’s appointed musicians start to play. Sitting on a dais sporting another raven symbol, they play popular songs, inviting the audience to join in favourites such as It’s a long way to Tipperary.

At the table in front of them are Lord Lieutnant John Scott and gold-chained council convener Sandy Cluness, with the third place reserved for the guizer jarl. In pride of place is the silver galley drinking vessel, a gift from Maløy.

A loud roar eventually marks the arrival of the Vikings, a horde of axe-wielding wild men in terra cotta-coloured woollen cloaks who take up positions in two flanks on either side of the upper chamber, the grey and brown tones of their outfits blending well with the stained glass and rich red of the chamber’s curtains.

They are in fine voice with a rendering of the Up-Helly-A’ song and their signature song The Braes of Killicrankie, singing loudly and tunefully even though the ornamentation on their black and silver helmets almost covers their noses and mouths.

This is a very special day for the guizer jarl, says Mr Cluness, in a speech punctuated by lots of applause, referrring to the fact of Sigurd’s being the third generation to occupy that position and calling it an “exceptional” occurence. It is a proud dynasty, he says, one which was set to continue as the guizer jarl’s son is in the squad.

Sigurd (born with the image of a snake encircling the pupil of his left eye) was one of four sons of the ruthless Ragnar (represented in 1987 by ex-jarl Mitnie Simpson, Rae’s father), who ended his career in a pit of serpents (and Mr Cluness knew from council meetings what that felt like, he said, to general hilarity).

Additional reporting by Rosalind Griffiths.

For full coverage of the 2010 Up-Helly-A’, see this Friday’s Shetland Times.


Add Your Comment
  • Peg Young

    • January 28th, 2010 12:14

    Much gratitude an kudos most ging tae da folk at info@60north for da web-cams! Deir wark ensured at wiz far awa were able ta feel as if we wir dere.

    Whit a joy it was ta watch fur da first time since 1966! Da first glimpse o da Gelley as she cam doon da rod tae da pier stopped my hert fur a peerie start, an I hiv ta confess I gret. I haedna expected such a swall o feelins.

    At night da wind obliterated a lot o da soond, but hearin da boys singin transported me back 50 years. I sang alang an gaffed at da guizers when da camera zoomed in on dem. I could joost aboot smell da reek fae da torches. A particularly poignant moment wis whan da camera zoomed in on da Jarl as he stood in his Gelley for da last time. His emotion wis evident, and I wished I hed been able to see my ain dad’s face as clearly when he stood in da sam spot sae mony years ago.

    Mange tusen takk and congratulations ta everybody concerned wi da transmission, and congratulations, as weel, tae da Jarl an his Guizers. He wiz an impressive sight, ta say da least.

    If dere wis onything at disappointed me, it wis da fact at da guizers’ faces are bare in da procession. In my day, every man hed his face covered an wis really guizin. Is da art o guizin dead? If so, what a peety. The very best pairt o Up-Helly-Aa for wis in my day, wis never kennin wha wis in da squads until dey took aff da masks efter dey wir feenished deir turns. If da faces are seen in da Procession, dan dere’s nae mystery. Too bad.

    Regardless—I will be hom for Up-Helly Aa as soon as I can persuade my tropical-born man ta laeve da frozen expanse o da Canadian prairies an venture inta da wild January wadder o Shetland!

    Skål !


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