Culture: From grand old Viking centuries (a new) Up Helly A’ has come

This month, the first ever South Mainland Up Helly A’ will take place, with a procession through Bigton and a burning site at St. Ninian’s Isle. Marsali Taylor went to Sandwick to meet Guizer Jarl David Smith and other members of the organising committee.

The South Mainland Up Helly A’ began with a group of just four people. One of them was Ross Smith, from Sandwick.

“We just thought, well, everywhere else has one, and it would be a fun,” Ross told me. “There’d been an attempt to get one going about ten years ago, but it didn’t come to anything, so we thought we’d try again. We decided to have a public meeting to see what the interest was – that was on 22 February last year. There was a fair number of folk turned up, so we formed a steering group to see if it was feasible. The original idea was to have just one hall, and four or five squads.”

Interest exceeded their expectations. Representatives from over twenty squads turned up, meaning more halls would need to be involved. “We thought we’d try four – Bigton, Gulberwick, Ness Boating Club and Sandwick,” Ross said. They’re all sold out now, and there’s a waiting list for tickets at every hall. The Social Club here sold out in two hours. When we realised the level of interest we made a decision to see if a fifth hall could be opened. Cunningsburgh agreed to give it a go and tickets for there have just about sold out as well.”

I wondered if perhaps the south mainland tended to get lost as an identity, because of being more spread out. Ross shook his head. “The south mainland is very much individual communities, but we do get folk together a lot, for sporting events like darts, rowing and of course in football Ness United is getting stronger every year with teams at all age groups. Still, it’s good to get all the communities together for something like this.”

The SMUHA Committee includes someone from each area. David Smith, Shetland’s newest Jarl, originally came on as the representative from Bigton.
“Ross asked me to come along,” he said. “If there were only going to be two halls, I wanted Bigton to be one of them. I know what Up Helly Aa is like from the guizing side, I’ve been going out in the Lerwick festival for years, so I wanted to look at it from the hall organisation side.”

How did he end up as the Jarl?

“Well, on the steering group, you got an inkling of folk who fancied having a go at being the Jarl once their squads were established, but nobody wanted to be the first. I spoke it over with Mrs Jarl, and decided that someone would have to do it so why not me? At the mass meeting in March, there was a call, “Who’s going to be the Jarl?” and I was volunteered. The squad I formed is mostly family, and friends from around Shetland and further afield.”

Experience in Lerwick and Brae has been invaluable for this committee who are starting from scratch. There’s so much to think about: halls, making the galley and trailer, torches, the procession route and burning site, marshals, programmes and all the host of health and safety regulations. The committee has had monthly meetings for the last year, as well as extra fund-raising sessions. At this meeting, there’s just four weeks and five days to go. There’s no sign of stress, though; everyone seems to be enjoying themselves hugely.

The first part of the meeting was with the community hall representatives. The hall committees have drawn up a list of hall capacity, and discussed important things like the band, the supper and the provision of wristbands (one colour for the adults, another colour for the young folk). Ticket prices have been set, bar licences organised and parking arrangements considered.

After that, Robert Halcrow from Cunningsburgh gave the Jarl-to-be a progress report on his galley. She was designed by Erik Moncrieff, and is a “proper” complete boat – she needs to be, for she’s to be launched to burn on the water.
Her undercoat’s done, the mast will be filled tomorrow, and the head and tail are coming on well. The colour was discussed, but of course, that’s a secret.

The trailer’s being made by Leonard Christie from Cunningsburgh. It’s now clad in wood, and just needing another night’s work. Under it, there’ll be a launching trolley, which will be left till the next day, then retrieved. The plans for that are under control too.

Liam Mullay from Gulberwick is organising the torches. There were 390 made at the last meeting, and now there are 501 – enough, he hopes, but he needs a clear idea of numbers. In Lerwick, they reckon on 10 per cent of guizers not carrying. He needs a lot of hands for mixing cement – apparently the mixture is too cladgy for a mixer. Marigolds will be required too. The cementing will be carried out with assistance from the Lerwick torch boys on 27th February – as close as possible to the big night to still allow time for any extra work that might crop up.

The group secretary is Dale Smith, from Sandwick, and he gave a run-down on the squads – now there are 22 – and passed round a form he’s drawn up to get a description of the act, and the numbers carrying torches. A date’s set for it to be returned, a week before torch cementing day, and by way of encouragement he adds a space for hop ticket numbers, with a severe “first come, first served” warning. Most of the squad fees have been paid. He and Irene Smith from Cunningsburgh are also in charge of the programme. They’ve filled 18 pages with advertising, and the money for that’s coming in nicely too. There’s a decision taken on when to sell it, how to distribute it, and the number to print: 1,000.
“I don’t have to sign them all, do I?” David asked plaintively.

Insurance also needs to be thought about; that is up and running too, and sponsorship for the Jarl Squad lunch is also in hand.

The bill is very important, and Geordie Jacobson wants someone from each area to give him a good spread of ideas in it. One name’s suggested: “he has the right warped sense of humour”. Their get-togethers have resulted in some evenings of immense hilarity.

Arrangements for the procession are extremely important. The route is to be into Bigton, then the procession will split up going through the village, with the galley taking the upper route, then join again for the road down to St Ninian’s Isle. The galley is to be burned from the little beach to the north of the ayre, unless it’s a north-west wind when it’ll be launched on the south side of the ayre, or, as a last resort, burned on the ayre itself. Dale and David had a site visit with the Sumburgh policeman, Ian Brown, and have also liased with Jim Budge, the landowner, “who was extremely helpful,” they both said.

Lighting the dark bit of the route could be a problem. Driving extra torches into the ground would be picturesque, but a fire hazard. At this point the committee took a brief diversion into the merits of water in blue barrels or sand in fishboxes for extinguishing flares (sand won). In the end they went for approaching a local company for floodlights, which can be put out as the procession arrives.

Marshalling is also extremely important. Normally this would be done by the previous year’s Jarl Squad, but as there isn’t one each squad will be asked to provide one or two non-torch carrying members to marshal their squad. A number of folk from Lerwick squads have already volunteered. Getting the names is now a high priority. The police have suggested 50 would be about right, and at first the committee felt this was too many, but once they counted up the jobs it sounded about right: marshalling the procession, car parking, directing folk to the junction, more down at the disabled parking and people to rope off the burning area, as well as torch distributors and people to pull the galley.

“Getting her going will be no bother, but it’ll take a lot to stop her, on the hill,” Brydon Robertson said.

Leonard sat up straighter. “This trailer has brakes.”

It’s essential the marshals can be identified too. With the lack of Jarl squad suits something else would have to be decided on. I wasn’t sure if David was serious when he suggested a twinkly bracelet as well – probably, it would certainly be identifiable. Dale asked for someone to do a marshalling plan, and got several volunteers.

You can’t just set a blazing boat adrift and leave her; she needs to be anchored. Laying the anchor can’t be done until the last minute, in case of a wind shift. Brydon’s all set to organise someone to go out there in a drysuit. If it’s laid at a ground ebb, enough water will cover it, so long as it’s well dug in.

“Are we having the pipe band?” someone asked. David shook his head. “Just the brass band for this year.”

Traffic and parking arrangements have provided many hours of head-scratching, and committee members have been to speak to the police and roads department about that. It is hoped that local volunteers will provide First Aid cover, and local coastguard members will come and fire any maroons needed.

“See if they’ll help us to source flares for lighting the torches too,” Brydon suggested.

The fireworks at the finish will be set off right from the ayre itself.

The Jarl squad costume is a closely guarded secret, of course, though David’s allegiance to Heart of Midlothian football club may provide a hint as to colours included. I asked David if he’s laying down any traditions for the next Jarls to follow, like Lerwick’s handed-down axe, shield, helmet and breastplate.

“No,” he said, “I didn’t want to do that. I meant it all to be very low-key for this first year – but even the suit has grown arms and legs. People kept discovering skills they didn’t know they had, like leatherworking, sewing, and jewellery and helmet-making.”

I’d already noticed women on the committee – are there any in the Jarl Squad? “Yes,” David said, “equality in everything is important to me.”

As for the future, well, David’s already looking foward.

“Next year, it’ll be a Dunrossness Jarl, Brydon, then in 2012 it’s Kevin Adamson, from Cunningsburgh. Dale, from Sandwick, is on in 2013, Keith Lobban from Gulberwick and Quarff in 2014, and then it’s Bigton’s turn again, in 2015. I hope a female Jarl will apply – that’d be something, to have the first in Shetland.”

The meeting ends with a decision to up the meetings to weekly, there’s just so much to do. It’s a huge amount of work, but it sounds as if the inaugural South Mainland Up Helly A’ is going to be an excellent night.

Marsali Taylor

The South Mainland Up Helly A’ will take place on Friday 12th March in Bigton.


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