Jarl David Nicolson cuts an imposing figure at the head of his unusual black-painted “Stealth” galley Per Ardua, his flowing beard swept to the side by the bitterly cold wind. He has the steely gaze and self-assured demeanour befitting of a military leader.
The Vikings are being marshalled on the pier for official photographs and onlookers admire their classic red, silver and black suits. The talking point about the Jarl so far today is the splay of dark plumage across his shoulders, said to have been plucked from French cocks, which gives off a green and purple iridescence in the light.
In a rare break with tradition – perhaps unnoticed by most – the Raven Banner on the galley mast is red, not white, which it was every year for nearly a century, except in 1965 at the insistence of Jarl Tammy Moncrieff. David, an RAF veteran, apparently said: “There is no way an ex-serviceman is going to have a white flag!”
Earlier, when the squad had made an early start to its march “in ower” from the British Legion, panic briefly gripped the town’s traffic-choked backstreets. With folk arriving late the ensuing melee saw kerbs unceremoniously mounted by flapping drivers and hordes of people taking to their heels to try to reach the Esplanade in time to greet the festive throng.
Soon the pipe band was strutting down towards them, swollen greatly in volume by enthusiastic participants from south who are said to be coming up in increasing numbers to be part of the big day.
The jarl’s father, Jim Nicolson, who was jarl himself in 1979, commands the galley as usual on her short voyage into the town centre. Crouched behind him like a nest of fluffy eider duck chicks are five of the youngest boys in the squad, soaking it all in and probably already preparing for an Up-Helly-A’ life.
“It’s a day to keep movin’,” says an ex-jarl watching and reminiscing from the sidelines. He’s right. It might be a south-easterly but it has the vicious chill of an icy northerly.
There is no fear of the Jarl’s Squad feeling the cold given the speed with which they “crack at”, along the harbour front, rounding Solotti’s corner and along the street to mill around the Bill at the Market Cross.
“Right! You guys OUT!” shouts big Ivor Cluness to the cameramen lingering in the space too long. Big lenses are de rigeur these days, massed all around the Cross like weapons, pointing in the same direction and snapping happily. Who knows, perhaps a million photos might be taken today.
There are smiles aplenty from the exuberant warriors, notably Paul Leask, Lynden Nicolson and Michael Johnson who look as pleased as Punch.
Into this sea of men slips the Jarl’s daughter Suzanne, to be kissed by her dad and given a rousing Three Cheers for painting the Bill Head.
Soon the shout goes out “Shimmy, shimmy, shimmy boys” and the men step out to fall into line and march along Commercial Street, making to rejoin their galley next to the Bressay ferry pier. The junior jarl’s squad joins on behind the Lerwick Brass Band at the Bank of Scotland, the boys’ thin bare legs looking a bit blue in the cold.
We gather around for the traditional Coutts’ Family Ladder Show as John climbs aloft and directs his legendary father to get all 70 squad members and the Jarl perfectly aligned for those iconic galley photos. And a splendid sight they make too, scoring highly in the test of Viking warrior authenticity.
Two German visitors Sven and Pamela Kantelhardt from the city of Mainz sum it up rather well. “I guess it’s not what you see in a museum but it’s quite fun,” says Sven. “It’s a good mixture of tradition and still having fun.”
They chose to holiday in Scotland in January! The focal point of the trip was Up-Helly-A’ in Shetland. Sven writes historical novels and is interested in soaking up a bit of the festival vibe and its customs to include in a forthcoming work.
Photos and song completed, the Vikings mingle with the crowd. Squad member and Shetland Times employee Glenn Gilfillan is soon being poked, prodded and posed with. His mighty sword is proving rather heavy to wield, he says, and he has just about dislocated his shoulder already with still a good 22 hours yet to go.
He poses with returning Shetlander Brian Hunter, 70, who left Lerwick for Australia as a “£10 immigrant” when just nine years old with his father Aly Hunter. It is 20 years since he was last home and he is staying with his cousin Ivy McNeil of Scalloway.
He has his grandson Ryan over with him, who was six when he found out about his Viking heritage and wanted to visit. That was 14 years ago. “I promised to take him to see Up-Helly-A’ some day,” Brian says, “so that day is now!”
Ryan was looking forward to cutting loose with some younger folk and heading for a good time at the dance in the Holmsgarth terminal.
There are all kinds of people doing all kinds of projects dreamed up around Up-Helly-A’. One among the ranks of video and still photographers is making a special documentary over the course of two years following squad member Tommy Williamson. Jazz impresario Jeff Merrifield started filming Tommy in February last year when he had his last shave. The camera won’t stop rolling until after the Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh. We often hear about Up-Helly-A’ taking over your life but having every second of it filmed too has moved things onto quite another level!