Jarl’s Squad brighten up a dull morning

The first sighting of the Jarl’s Squad was outside Islesburgh Community Centre, when they emerged after a hearty breakfast, bang on time for their first march at 8.30am.

The squad members were in fine voice, and looked remarkably agile despite rumours that they boast the oldest average age of a Jarl’s Squad ever. Surely that can’t be true.

Half an hour later I was outside the Lerwick British Legion. The crowd was a bit sparse and the rain slightly heavier as we waited for the squad to arrive from the Toll Clock Shopping Centre, having picked up the galley Nils Olav en route.

Skilled woodworker Geoffrey Johnson. Photo: Stephen Gordon
Skilled woodworker Geoffrey Johnson. Photo: Stephen Gordon

A smattering of ex-jarls were in evidence, and one of them, Billy Goudie (2000), remarked that it was an “awful day”. No-one was arguing with that sentiments but it was hardly surprising given what had been thrown at us for the past two months.

By a few minutes after nine more people had gathered, and excitement grew as the first cheers could be heard in the distance.

As the galley wound into view, passing cheering onlookers in front of the Muddy Bay furniture store, the Freefield Centre and the Sarmile take-way, there was talk that snapper Malcolm Younger was onboard, a position he had also taken up two years ago.

Asked at the weekend whether this procedure would be repeated, one senior Jarl’s Squad member had been adamant. “If he tries to enter the galley dis year he’ll get his camera brokken an his erse keeked!” Surely the Viking threat is not so fierce nowadays.

As the squad drew nearer they made a fine sight, resplendent in their brown padded tunics, dark green trousers, rabbit skin boots and trimmings and helmets with chainmail neck covers. They carried a variety of weapons, the bulk of the squad bearing double-headed axes, swords and daggers.

The five “guardsmen”, who wore black instead of green, had spears instead of axes, and they all carried impressively shaped shields. The only criticism I would have is that the stick-on facial “tattoos” displayed by a few looked decidedly naff, especially when they began to run.

Inside the Legion it was time for a run through The Up-Helly-Aa Song and The Galley Song, before a rousing rendition of the squad song Daydream Believer, with a few different lyrics from the Monkees’ version.

Guizer Jarl Neil Robertson received a plaque from Kerry Eunson on behalf of the Legion, and he handed over a miniature shield in exchange.

Neil made reference to last year’s football match, when the Hardy Young Vikings had triumphed 6-5 over Legion team Kelly’s Kripples, and the one-and-only Cags had commented that “the Jarl’s Squad looks after the Legion and the Legion looks after the Jarl’s Squad”. Whatever that means I have no idea.

Once the formalities were over with I caught up with Andy Miller, who spent his boyhood in Lerwick while his father was teaching at first the Central School and then the AHS. For anyone who remembers Andrew (Snr), a popular teacher of secretarial studies who was known as a bit of a character, he is still alive and well at the age of 90, living in Livingstone.

Andy himself had come all the way from Hong Kong where he now lives and works as a professor of development biology. This trip is only for a fortnight but he will be coming back in April for seven months to oversee a research project at the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway.

“I would like to make it known that there’s no coincidence whatsoever between that project and being invited into the Jarl’s Squad,” he said. Err … I’m not sure I would have made the connection.

Andy said the real reason he was in the squad was his friendship with the jarl, which began through his father. Then Neil had headed out east for the annual Hong Kong Rugby Sevens and stayed with Andy’s family and as a “reciprocal thing” he had received an invitation to become a Viking.

This year is Andy’s first in a squad since 1979. He remembers being a fiddle box carrier with the late Bill Carter and Billy Moncrieff, although he was usually referred to as a “trumpet box carrier” as the musicians were often more of the brass variety.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be back again,” he said, adding that his sister Alison, her husband and two daughters had come up from Edinburgh for the occasion and would be at the Clickimin Centre.

His younger brother Alistair, now a flying doctor in Australia, was unable to make the trip but he sent his best wishes.

“I find the funniest thing coming back, and not having seen people for so long, it’s 10 times more difficult [recognising them] when they all have beards!”

With a Jarl’s Squad looking so good as this one it is obvious that a tremendous lot of work has gone into making both the suits and accessories, and a man responsible for the wood elements is janitor Geoffrey Johnson, who also taught woodwork nightclasses for a spell.

This is Geoffrey’s third time as a guest in the squad, having accompanied Peter Leask, jarl in 1995, and Bruce Leask, who led the festival in 2002.

The axe and spear handles, which look tremendous, were carved from two and a half cubic metres of padauk, an Asian timber which is a member of the blood group of dense hardwood, Geoffrey told me.

“It’s a concept which has never been done,” he said. “It was delayed for 20 years and it’s very, very difficult to cut out in one piece.”

It was a very comfortable and practical suit, Geoffrey said, and his colleagues sitting nearby all nodded in agreement.

There was just time for a quick word with the main man himself, with the fearsome figure of marshall Ivor Cluness waiting to usher him away, so I asked Neil if he was prepared for what was to come.

“The voice is still holding out,” he said. “It’s a peerie bit wet but I’m sweating anyway to be honest so it won’t make much difference.

“Gary Neckie said you always feel better when it’s raining. Well that’s certainly the case today and I feel great!”

On exiting the Legion the rain had stopped. Let’s hope Neil doesn’t notice.


Add Your Comment
  • Peter Tait

    • January 27th, 2015 13:37

    Delighted to hear that Andrew Miller (snr) is still to the fore. I remember him well as my accountancy teacher. Always great fun, but was a fantastic teacher with it.


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