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.
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.
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.