Past Life: Up-Helly-A’

From Shetland Life, February 1985, No. 52


I’ve never seen Up-Helly-A’.
The name is strange, outlandish –
For who could take time off
In the middle of a busy life?
Such a time of year to have it.
Shetland in January!
With the seas so rough
And the fares so expensive,
But I’d like to go
One day,
Even though the pleasure
Was half pain.
They’ve kept it so stubbornly
Theirs –
Their festival, and the dark streets
Flickering in the torchlight,
Faces unfamiliar, family and friends
Transformed into witches and clowns,
Casting off cautious selves,
Freeing the Viking within.
And the dragon prow moving onward
To the glorious and golden pyre,
Spirits rushing upward with the flame,
Happiness rising phoenix-like from the ashes;
Darkness will end, summer must come.

* * *

I’ve a picture of my father, with his friends
Dressed for Up-Helly-A’.
How can a father look so young?
They face the photographer seriously,
Skin plumped with youth, eyes clear,
Unshadowed, lips unsmiling,
But laughter danced behind,
Ready to break out.
How ridiculous their costumes!
Billiard tables! All dressed in green baize
And carrying cues, with lamp-shadows for hats.
Round their necks coloured balls dangled,
Pink, red and blue.
Young friends together, dressed all the same
Rejoicing for Up-Helly-A’.
They’re called a squad in Shetland –
Was it prophetic?
For it was 1914, and soon they were to be
A squad indeed, of soldiers
In the Gordon Highlanders,
Their narrow lanes of Lerwick
Exchanged for narrow trenches
In Flanders.
They wouldn’t show their fear,
Not Shetlanders, but it must have seemed
So strange to them,
Their quiet world transformed to Hell,
But at least they had each other,
That little squad of friends.

* * *

I’d like to see Up-Helly-A’ –
Just once, through his eyes
And remember them.

Lilian Turner

This poem was broadcast on 2nd January on the BBC radio programme “McGregor’s Gathering”. It won the runner’s up prize in their competition, “Scotland in Winter”.


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