If we axe for change maybe it will come

With reference to the first female Guizer Jarl at today’s South Mainland Up-Helly-A’, HELEN ROBERTSON argues that it is time for change in the Lerwick festival.

I grew up in Lerwick, daughter of a keen Up-Helly-A’ enthusiast. My earliest memories are not so much of the big procession and burn­­ing but of the small replica wooden galley my Dad made every year.

We burned it in the back garden if the weather allowed and in true Up-Helly-A’ fashion there was no cancellation for weather, although we did move in to the heartstane in the living room if the weather was terrible.

My task for the peerie galley was to design and make the shields; they were about the size of a £1 coin and were all carefully coloured with felt tip, each one different. There was also a tiny red hand to be made and a canvas sea base to be painted. I loved doing all those things.

The junior squad that never was. The girls were allowed to perform their act at the school dance but were not allowed to march in the Junior Up-Helly-A'. Back row, from left: Julie Walterson, Vivian Hawes, Sheryl Moar and Helen Robertson. Front: Mandy Manson and Treena Pearson.
The junior squad that never was. The girls were allowed to perform their act at the school dance but were not allowed to march in the Junior Up-Helly-A’. Back row, from left: Julie Walterson, Vivian Hawes, Sheryl Moar and Helen Robertson. Front: Mandy Manson and Treena Pearson.

Another memory I have is of Dad designing and making silver brooches and helmet jewellery when it was his squad’s turn to be the Jarl’s Squad. Although everything had to be top secret I can remember him drawing and redrawing the design and spending a long time filing, shaping and polishing the final pieces.

Now I was quite a boyish lass. Frequent swimming and general action meant my hair was cut fairly short. I liked clothes I could climb down the banks in, play rounders in, cycle in, etc, so I was sometimes mistaken for a boy.

When it finally came to the squad photo I can remember going down to Jarlshof and then having a meal with the rest of the squad, all dressed in their Viking outfits including my Dad and younger brother, then aged four.

The “Viking” next to me turned to me at lunch and said: “Whit wye is du no in da squad?”

Well, what way indeed? The simple answer I muttered at the time was: “Becis A’m a lass.”

Already annoyed at the injustice of not being allowed to play football even though I was a dab hand at “Three and In”; at not being allowed to join the Sea Scouts even though I could “box the compass” and row; and having to do knitting at school instead of mixed crafts; here was another really fun and special thing I was not allowed to do simply because of my gender. It hurt.

So time passed and I found my­self in second year at the Anderson High School. The first and second year boys had been called into the hall and given a lecture by the then head teacher, Geordie Jamieson, about their lack of enthusiasm in forming squads for the Junior Up-Helly-A’.

The numbers were too low, they would need to get their act(s) together. So the answer (to me) was obvious. We (my friends and I) could do it – we could form a squad and take part. Having been brought up with the excitement of Up-Helly-A’ I was as enthusiastic an Up-Helly-A’ enthusiast as you would meet.

And obviously a threat to security. I was 13. All hell broke loose. At least one member of the Up-Helly-A’ committee came to the school to complain and intervene.

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The compromise (on my part and I would like to think on the school’s part though I’m less certain of that as the years go by and the status quo remains) was that we could take part in the school dance for the first and second year pupils by performing our act but – get this – we could not march in the Junior Up-Helly-A’.

And so the years passed again and I found myself in sixth year. A debating society was formed; sug­gestions for topics were sought.

Women in Up-Helly-A’ was an obvious topic for me to put forward. Now I do understand that in a debate you don’t necessarily have to believe in the side you are arguing for but I think it helps.

It seemed though that I had created another society-threatening event. Although the debate was allowed to go ahead I was stopped on several occasions by ancillary staff members and told in no un­certain terms that “You can’t change the Lerwick Up-Helly-A’” and “It’s tradition, you can’t change tradition”.

I listened, waiting for a chance to eat my school dinner. My brother, then in second year, and the Junior Jarl’s Squad came home and told me that “Everyone in first and second year hates you for what you’re trying to do to the Up-Helly-A’”.

It seemed that some opinions are just too dangerous to be allowed to be shared. I could see the strain that having a daughter with such a strong opinion contrasting to the opinions of his friends and colleagues had on my Dad so I stopped openly camp­aigning and became much more passive aggressive about the whole thing. I simply stopped going. I sup­pose that’s how community pressure works.

But I never stopped caring about it – it still annoys me intensely. It makes me ashamed to be from Shet­land to think that some folk are so stuck in their ways that they value “tradition” over progress.

Every year I cringe as the world’s media descend just waiting for someone to ask: “But where are all the women?” Surely some day one of the visiting journalists will be unsatisfied with the answer that they are all happy waiting in the hall kitchens.

• This is an abridged version of an article published in <i>The Shetland Times</i> on Friday 13th March.


Add Your Comment
  • John Tulloch

    • March 13th, 2015 17:05

    You cud tak year aboot, ee year da weemin bigs da galley and maks da torches an be’s da Jarl an da guizers an da men maks da tae an bannocks ida haals.

    An dan da neist year, hit cud be da tidder wye aboot?


  • Brian Smith

    • March 13th, 2015 18:21

    Excellent article. If women took charge of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa it would be a sight more interesting than it is at present!

  • David Spence

    • March 14th, 2015 1:57

    When does Tradition NOT become Tradition due to Political Correctness?

    Chinese Whispers are a good example where the original is changed totally out of recognition due to time and Political Correctness.

    Where do you draw the line between keeping tradition to this of pleasing the minority for the sake of Political Correctness.

    Tradition ceases to become a Tradition if it is changed so much to what it was originally.

    Yes, it is good that times have changed and recent events have proved this, but where has the tradition gone?…………….probably into the mists of time, always to be forgotten.

    • Margaret Gear

      • March 15th, 2015 12:04

      Women are not a minority…..

      • David Spence

        • March 15th, 2015 14:36

        I apologise Margaret, I did not mean it in the way and manner to which it came out…….so to speak.

        There is, I think, 2 issues brought to the fore here. 1. Acknowledging the rights of people and 2. Keeping and maintaining social and cultural traditions.

        This is a difficult scenario because it brings to the fore, as some people may see it, a level of discrimination towards half the population, but at the same time celebrating a tradition which emphasizes Shetlands Scandinavian heritage and history.

        I think it is good that women can participate and be the main character in the celebrations, as recent events have proven with the countryside (outwith Lerwick) Up Helly Aa’s, but has this been done due to Political Correctness or an individual persons right to participate in the ceremony as a consequence of Political Correctness? Is Political Correctness the driving force to this persons determination to have the main Up Helly Aa in Lerwick incorporate women as well as men or is it based on equality regardless to what it is?

      • Steven Jarmson

        • March 15th, 2015 15:03

        I don’t think the reference is to women as a minority, its th PC brigade that is being referred too. That’s my reading of it anyway.

  • Kim Rendall

    • March 14th, 2015 13:17

    Well said Helen, I agree completely, this change is long overdue!

  • J R Wilson

    • March 14th, 2015 19:38

    Pardon my ignorance but I was totally unaware that females were prohibited from the Lerwick up helly aa and could have sworn that there had been female guizer jarls before, well some of them certainly looked like women.

  • David Spence

    • March 14th, 2015 20:57

    ‘ they value “tradition” over progress. ‘

    Would you regard the hand knitting of a Shetland Jumper as a skilled and talented tradition or would you say, due to progress, that such an item being mass produced by machine as equal to being made by hand because that tradition has been superseded by progress (technology)?

    How do you define ‘ Your Right ‘ to this of ‘ keeping cultural and social traditions alive? ‘.

    Is you right/debate based on social values of the 1870’s (the time of the first modern Up Helly Aa/although it was 1906 was the first with a Jarl) or of 2015, and if so, why?

    I agree that certain traditions should not happen in this day and age. The mass and barbaric killing of the pilot whales in the Faroe Islands is still done due to ‘ tradition ‘. This form of unnecessary tradition has no place in a modern, civilised society.

    Shetland used to do it for the sake of necessity, but no longer does such act due to, dare one say it, technological and social progress.

  • Freda Leask

    • March 14th, 2015 21:31

    Brilliant Helen. You should send to the national press

  • Robert Erasmuson

    • March 14th, 2015 23:27

    Few words are required. But I applauded you Helen.
    Any kind of inequality disgusts me.

  • Elizabeth Rayner

    • March 15th, 2015 5:04

    This story echoes my own experience in New Zealand’s shetland society in the early 1990s. I was on the committee and put forward a motion for women to be included in the Jarl’s squad at the annual Viking Ball. I was visited by the committee president to work out a compromise which allowed girls to be included in the junior squad for the Christmas parade. I was pleased there was some change but I resigned from the committee. When we had the 75th anniversary, my friends and I formed a ViQueens squad but were not part of the formal procession.
    Including women does not dilute the traditional celebrations it enhances them. We also enjoy being on the front line because we are descendants of Vikings too!

  • joe johnson

    • March 15th, 2015 8:45

    I don’t see a problem with women taking part in Up Helly Aa. I’m all for it. Well done Helen Robertson for your courage in expressing your opinion.

  • Steven Jarmson

    • March 15th, 2015 10:28

    I’m sorry to disagree.
    This is a complicated concept, but, not being able to participate in something doesn’t mean you are discriminated against.
    Lerwick UHA’s “Men only” in the procession rule isn’t discriminating, it’s just a rule that’s always been.
    It goes back to the origins of the event, tradition.
    Tradition, I’m happy to say, doesn’t take account of idiotic political correctness.
    Life isn’t fair, life isn’t equal, but some traditions are above political correctness.
    John Tullochs idea of year about Jarls smacks of sexism and blind political correctness.
    For a start, that would give women undue influence in UHA given that men make up something like 2/3’s of the population, for true equality, it would be more like 2 years for men for every year for women.
    PC nonsense yet again pushed in the name of “equality.” But actually discrimination by the back door.

    • Brian Smith

      • March 15th, 2015 15:19

      The UKIP view.

    • Robert Duncan

      • March 15th, 2015 20:59

      I suspect Mr Tulloch’s comment was a joke…

      Something can be both traditional and discriminatory.

      “But we’ve always kept them” wouldn’t have been an adequate defence of slavery. “But it’s always just been men” isn’t an adequate defence of UHA’s sexism.

  • David Spence

    • March 15th, 2015 19:57

    May be Brian can shed some light onto the said subject?

    I am led to believe that Aud the Deep Minded, was a baptised and devout Christian, and, it is believed, she was the first to introduce Christianity into Iceland.

    It begs the question:-

    Are we celebrating her as a Christian or a Viking? There does seem to be a bit of a contradiction in terms of her role in Up Helly Aa? I would presume such celebrations would be regarded as pagan under Christian practices?

    People may say ‘ It is a bit of fun, a time for the community to get together etc etc ‘ If this is the case, why all the fuss as to whether or not a particular gender is involved in Up Helly Aa or is it one persons campaign to, as they see it, enforce their way and right onto a tradition which has had no problems regarding such a subject until now?

    • Robert Duncan

      • March 15th, 2015 21:02

      I suspect the men-only stance has little to do with any true Viking history and was simply a result of the social constructs at the time UHA started. Evidence has shown that many Viking travellers (and indeed warriors) were women – perhaps we took a wrong turn in the intervening 500 years.

  • Tracey Scadden

    • March 15th, 2015 21:36

    Similar discussions about gender and tradition have taken place here in New Zealand, particularly with regards Maori haka (the challenge performed by the All Blacks before rugby matches). When the Women’s national team were eventually permitted to perform a unique and specially choreographed haka, neither the match, players, outcome or traditions were compromised; in fact, quite the opposite: respect for the haka, ethnic origins, tradition and players was positively enriched. Sometimes our fear of change is the only reason we cling to tradition. And who says tradition is unchangeable?

  • Sandy McMillan

    • March 15th, 2015 22:08

    Me late father was involved in da building o da Galley for many a year, I was a bairn at the time i asked him what was Up Helly Aa, weel he said i ken o twa or tree meanings, Da first wan wis when dir wis a death of the King, o weel say Norway, they put the body of the King on the Viking ship set fire to it and set it adrift they would have probably had dir families we dem, in cas de fun a plic tae setle. Da women played as much a part as da men did.
    Secondly it was said to be the return of the Sun, after the cauld winter the Vikings had endured, they all had a dram and danced da night away, It was then that Pillage an Rape started, The first UpHelly Aa in Shetland was started by the docks boys and sailors home from sailingThey would drag a burning tar barrel on a sledge around da streets causing havoc, every where they went, all with there illegal drink

  • Johan Adamson

    • March 16th, 2015 9:05

    Weemin already make an enormous contribution to UHA. Apart from sewing costumes and makin maet: Do you really think they choose those bits o underwear and hosiery themselves? I would put money on the fact the weemin input to the costumes colour schemes. My flippant and discriminatory comment for the day would be I dont believe the men have the organisational skills to do it for themselves.

    And if weemin want to go into a squad, they should be able to do so. The country UHAs are much better for it. I am sure it would be better for the dancing and the tourists if more men were in the hall to watch. I never liked the concept of waiting in the hall for your man to turn up. The change might just encourage more people to attend.

    Why dont we start with a mixed squad of fiddle players? If its good enough for the tattoo, it must be good enough for Lerwick UHA.

  • Mark Jamieson

    • March 16th, 2015 10:38

    Hi, very good article, what would happen if the lasses stopped doing all the behind the scenes hall work until they were allowed out? cancel the festival? a force more powerful than the weather.
    Being a betting man, where can I put a line on that within 10 years Lerwick will permit women in a similar fashion to SMUHA?, the pressure will mount and it will eventually give.
    SMUHA has come along and offers something completely different to Lerwick, and has posed many questions. The SMUHA website is more informative and user friendly and also they have broke the unbreakable mould by having the first female Jarl.
    SMUHA changing the location of the burning is one example of innovation where Lerwick should maybe follow suit? burning the galley at twageos, small boat harbour, sands of sound, clickimin loch, it was done in the summer hamefarins, just suggestions of course, maybe all are not practical but should maybe be given a thought.
    When will we see a SMUHA webcast to watch a galley burning in the sea?
    Who will be the next female jarl?

  • Robert Duncan

    • March 16th, 2015 11:51

    The pressure shouldn’t just be on Lerwick, for what it’s worth.

    Scalloway allows women in squads (although not mixed gender squads as in the South Mainland), but those squads are not currently on the rotation for Jarl Squad.

  • David Spence

    • March 16th, 2015 12:26

    As Sandy has said, one of the main acts within the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, was the burial ceremony of the chief Viking with all his possessions being laid onto the Galley and the Galley set alight.

    However, what the Lerwick Up Helly Aa has failed to recognise, as part of the burial ceremony, it was often a woman slave that was also included in the burial ceremony, where she would be sacrificed and laid beside the Chief Viking before the Galley was set alight. I am not advocating that a woman’s role in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa should incorporate such an act (for obvious reasons lol) but it does point out the importance women played in the burial ceremony, albeit unjustly on the said woman slave.

  • Michael Grant

    • March 16th, 2015 12:59

    The simple answer to this argument is to go and set up your own female UHA committee and have a female version of it.Looking at the amount of interest this has stirred up,shouldn’t be to much of a problem.

    • Lynne Geddes

      • March 16th, 2015 14:09

      I would suggest that anyone – female or male – who doesn’t like it the way it is goes ahead and sets up their own UHA and runs it the way they see fit. Folk will soon vote with their feet as to which one they prefer.

      • Robert Duncan

        • March 16th, 2015 14:48

        I would suggest things are nowhere near that simple.

    • Johan Adamson

      • March 17th, 2015 8:55


  • iantinkler

    • March 16th, 2015 17:13

    Sorry, Macho men, I have met Shetland lasses with more balls than any man whom has to dress up like a Viking, over compensating for something perhaps?

  • Douglas Young

    • March 16th, 2015 18:57

    Of course Lerwick Up Helly Aa will join the 21st century, the only reason it has survived banning women from the Jarl Squad is because the media have given it an easy ride.

    Like men only London Clubs and Golf Courses the days of female Vikings, if we really want any historical accuracy, will return.

    It would improve the entire event.

  • Michael Grant

    • March 16th, 2015 20:53

    Great topic,shame some of the trolls can’t help but post non topic drivel.

  • David Spence

    • March 17th, 2015 0:41

    Is the issue of having a female Guizer Jarl, based on Viking historical fact or this of 2015 Political Correctness?

    If it is based on 2015 Political Correctness, then it is an insult and a mockery to those people who devised the modern version of Up Helly Aa for the people of Shetland to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage and roots.

    If it is based on Viking historical fact, then let it be that there should be a female Guizer Jarl at the Lerwick Up Helly Aa.

    When enforce your own beliefs onto a tradition for the sake of Political Correctness (but has no bearing at all on the tradition itself) then it ceases to become a tradition, and nothing more, as one person told me, than a good excuse for a p*** Up.

    • Harry Dent

      • March 17th, 2015 12:37

      There’s not a huge amount of verifiable Viking historical fact in Up Helly Aa, though is there? I certainly don’t recall reading any accounts of, say, Eirkr Bloodaxe wandering around the town necking cans of Fosters, doing song-and-dance routines and telling bad jokes.

      It’s a snippet of Viking life as imagined from a late 19th century perspective. And yes, it’s largely an excuse for a good booze-up. I’d argue that the exclusion of women reflects Victorian values and that their inclusion will reflect 21st-century values, as well as the dawning realisation that women did, on occasion, play a leading role in Viking society.

      The real tradition of Up Helly Aa is that it’s loads of fun. It’s high time that the enjoyment was open to all.

  • Johan Adamson

    • March 17th, 2015 9:04

    Given that councils can no longer support men only clubs and golf courses, support to a male only festival will have to end soon.

    Its a tad unfair that the Jarl squad can only have male musicians and if they have daughters they cant be involved in the same way as their sons

  • Stuart Fox

    • March 17th, 2015 12:11

    As far as UHA goes, there is no rule which bans women from participating. Just needs a progressive squad, or a group of women with a bit of devilment about them, to test this!

    While we are discussing the topic, why not kill two birds with one stone and change the day from a Tuesday to a Thursday or Friday? This would have countless advantages and few negatives!

    Let the turmoil begin!!! 🙂

  • David Spence

    • March 17th, 2015 19:44

    I think the reason why the Lerwick UHA is on a Tuesday is because most shops were closed on a Wednesday, which is not so much the case today.

    However, I think it would be better to have the L UHA on a Friday, the Hop on a Saturday and the rest on a Sunday, back to work on the Monday. Before folk say anything about my comments, it is not changing the essence of UHA, just changing the times, which, I think, would be more appropriate.

  • Haydn Gear

    • April 17th, 2015 18:44

    Third world countries are blighted by unacceptable I’ll treatment of women.Even those which boast great material wealth such as Saudi Arabia deny women the right to drive cars! Great ! Even in Britain there are still negative attitudes which relegate women to being second class citizens. I think that the Up Helly Aa event is bogged down by traditionalists who seem to think that it is a God given right to keep women at bay . What they forget is that ALL traditions once upon a time did not exist. So much for being so precious . Let’s keep the ladies in their place! Women and girls doing men’s stuff? Oh no, no ,no ,no ,no. Pathetic.

    • Brian Smith

      • April 18th, 2015 14:29

      The very best example of the ‘essence’ of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa is how its committee marches around the town all day with suits and ties. Awful Viking.


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