Gallery: Jarl Lesley’s day gets under way

History is in the making today with the first ever female Guizer Jarl proudly taking her place in the galley at Shetland’s newest fire festival, the South Mainland Up-Helly-A’.
According to Lesley Simpson, issues of gender equality and breaking new ground for womankind have been far from her thoughts, even though the character she represents – Aud the Deep Minded – played as pivotal a role in the Icelandic sagas as any male Viking. (Article continues below gallery)

Mrs Simpson, whose day job is as head teacher of Dunrossness Primary School, says she shares traits of forward planning, knowing what she wants and being “probably a bit bossy”, with the Norse heroine.

According to the sagas Aud (who was the star of the Laxdale Saga while featuring in others) was born in 834 and fled Norway with her father Ketill Flatnose to escape the tyranny of Harald Finehair. Two of her brothers also fled, but headed for Iceland. Ketill became king of the Hebrides before moving to Ireland where Aud married the King of Dublin, Olaf the White.

Aud and Olaf’s son Thorstein the Red was a redoubtable fighter but both he and his father died in battle in Scotland. Aud and the rest of her band built a boat in a forest in Caithness which she captained to Orkney where she married off one of her grand-daughters, thus giving rise to the line of Norse Earls of Orkney.

Travelling onwards, again in charge of the vessel, Aud married off another grand-daughter in Faroe, giving rise to the Gatebeard clan who were spoken of in the sagas.

Finally she travelled to Iceland where her boat was wrecked on the coast. The survivors made it ashore and Aud went to stay with one of her brothers. She then settled in Laxdale in the west of the country and freed many of her slaves, granting them land in the process. She is considered one of the key founders of Iceland.

Mrs Simpson said she loved researching the life of Aud and added: “I’d love to have met her. She was a very important person in the history of Iceland, Orkney and the Faroes.”

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Leader of Mrs Simpson’s squad is her husband Robbie who has been “absolutely brilliant” and weathered a host of jokes about “who wears the breeks” like water off a duck’s back.

There are 42 squad members who are all family and friends and friends’ families. The Simpsons’ children Rebecca, 20, Jack, 18, and Lucy, 16, are also in the squad as are their mothers Kathleen Stout and Averil Simpson – both of whom have also been “fabulous”.

“We have had a lot of folk doing a huge amount of work over the last year and they have been a great support to wis too,” Lesley added.

Before the procession and the burning of the galley at Skeo Clett, opposite St Ninian’s Isle, there will be another burning at Dunrossness primary when Junior Jarl Emily Black sets fire to the junior galley at 2pm.

Mrs Simpson said that she was particularly looking forward to inspecting the ranks of guizers before the procession and also setting forth and putting up the billhead this morning, then taking things as they come.


Add Your Comment
  • Harry Dent

    • March 13th, 2015 13:01

    Great stuff! Aud has been a literary heroine of mine since I first encountered the sagas as a teenager.

    It’s most definitely time for women to be Guizer Jarls. I’m no great believer in tradition for tradition’s sake; a tradition has to be relevant if it is to survive and it only remains relevant by adapting and developing. And as traditions go, Upp-Helly-A’ is a very young one.

    By contrast, it’s over 1100 years since Aud led her band of warriors and pioneers to Iceland. It’s about time Shetland caught up.

    • John Tulloch

      • March 14th, 2015 10:05

      I wasn’t aware of that story, Harry, but it sounds like a valid reason to have a woman lead the festival.

      From a point of view of historical accuracy, did she bear the title “Jarl”, or something else – I don’t know about ancient Norway but in this country the female equivalent rank of ‘earl’ is ‘countess’?

      Were there any others who actually led like Aud or was she the only one?

      If people are serious about women having a role in Up Helly-Aa, how about the ‘Angel of Death’ who sacrificed a young female (volunteer) slave at the funeral of a jarl?

      Legend also has it that shieldmaidens (“skjoldmoy”) fought in battles and that redoubtable organ of accuracy, Wikipedia, has this interesting entry:

      “When Leif Ericson’s pregnant half-sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir was in Vinland, she is reported to have taken up a sword, and, bare-breasted, scared away the attacking Native Americans.[6] The fight is recounted in the Greenland saga, though Freydís is not explicitly referred to as a shieldmaiden in the text.[7]

      According to the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, shieldmaidens fought on the Danish side at the Battle of Bråvalla, in the year 750.

      “Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha (Heid) and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit, and was attended by Bo (Bui) Bramason and Brat the Jute, thirsting for war…The same man witnesses that the maiden Weghbiorg (Webiorg) fought against the enemy and felled Soth the champion. While she was threatening to slay more champions, she was pierced through by an arrow from the bowstring of Thorkill, a native of Tellemark.”[8]

      • Harry Dent

        • March 16th, 2015 12:38

        I don’t think Aud bore a title, but having said that, very few early Icelanders did, the country being more egalitarian than most societies at that time (although the slaves held by Aud and others might have found that to be cold comfort).

  • David Spence

    • March 13th, 2015 23:38

    ‘ Tradition ‘……….if tradition adapts or changes then it ceases to become tradition, I would say Harry.

    It is good, for the first time, there is a female Guizer Jarl, but…….

    Is this being done because of 2015 Political Correctness (or Up Helly Aa in this day and age being regarded as sexist?) or is there historical fact (not saga’s or folks tales) that women also took part in raiding, pillaging and killing of people as part of the Viking Exploits either within Scandinavia or further afield.

    If it has been done because of 2015 Political Correctness, then it is wrong………If you want to keep traditions alive, keep them alive according to fact and not twisting it, changing it, distorting it for the sake 2015 Political Correctness.

  • Steven Jarmson

    • March 15th, 2015 8:52

    I’d go with you on this one David.
    Tradition is there because it doesn’t change, that is what tradition is.
    I would however dispute the lack of a role in (the Lerwick) Up Helly Aa for women, which is being implied in this story and Harry’s comment.
    Without women there would be NO Lerwick UHA.
    Historically women have run the halls, without halls what is UHA?
    Not much really.
    Women have played a key role throughout the history of Up Helly Aa.
    There is no sexism in saying that I like how the Lerwick UHA works, it makes things tick.
    I know there are many women who would kill to be in a squad, but that’s their own self-deprecation, it’s their own negative competativeness, it’s their own chip to get off their shoulder, but really, if it was a free for all, who would keep the halls going?
    I know the country halls work, but really, who runs the country UHA halls?
    The Communities and local licenced establishments.
    That’s great, it’s actually amazing, people selfelessly helping out for the greater good.
    But in Lerwick, they expect to be spoon fed everything, so, for the Lerwick UHA, without the (mainly) ladies running the halls, who would do it?
    There’s no “community” to rely on in Lerwick.
    So, hopefully the tradition of women making UHA work in Lerwick will continue.
    And, lets be honest, if the ladies drop out of halls and go into squads, where will the squads go?
    Mareel? No one will make it home before tea time on the Friday!!!!

  • Harry Dent

    • March 16th, 2015 12:32

    Of course traditions change and develop.

    If they didn’t, there would be no Up Helly Aa at all, as it’s a late 19th-century invention, which I very much doubt the Vikings would have recognised as being part of their tradition.

    As for running the halls, why can’t men get involved there? Speaking for myself, years spent in catering and bars, mean I’d be far happier serving cups of tea than waving a flaming toch over my head.

    Surely a tradition is a living thing, and all living things change from day to day. Harping on about a mythical “political correctness” won’t change that and nor should it. The traditions that kept most women in the home or making the sandwiches have withered and died, so it’s high time the rules that mirrored that state of affairs were swept away as well.

    Hearty congratulations to SMUHA and Ms Johnson on building on the Up Helly Aa tradition and taking it forward into the 21st century.


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