25th May 2020
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Council’s Up-Helly-A’ involvement ruled legal

, by , in Headlines, News, ST Online

Legal advisers have told Shetland Islands Council its involvement with the Lerwick Up-Helly-A’ and Junior Up-Helly-A’ is legal and not in breach of equalities rules.

Pupils at Bell’s Brae Primary school enjoy the chance to meet members of the Lerwick Jarl’s Squad during this year’s Up-Helly-A’ visit. Photo: Kevin Jones

The fire festival has been mired in controversy over recent months amid a growing gender equality campaign pressing for all aspects of the senior and junior events to be opened up to women and girls.

Both the Jarl’s Squad and Junior Jarl’s Squad only include men or boys. Women do not take part in the torchlit procession as all the squads only include men.

The SIC sought advice after a number of complaints were received in the relation to its involvement in the annual Viking fire festival.

Every year the Jarl’s Squad is invited to a civic reception at Lerwick Town Hall and squad members visit both the Sound and Bell’s Brae Primary Schools which are local authority operated. The schools and the town hall are also used as halls during the nighttime Up-Helly-A’ celebrations.

All that will continue, in light of the new legal advice, which came from the council’s own legal team.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison said a thorough legal investigation had been completed to assess whether there were any issues in relation to the Equalities Act. That investigation concluded that there were not and the SIC was acting legally.

Ms Sandison said that while some people would not be happy with the response, the issue had been taken seriously.

She said: “I’m very well aware that there are strong feelings across the community about the involvement of women and girls in Shetland’s largest fire festival.

“It is not for Shetland Islands Council to pass judgement on how other organisations run their own business, but I did want to be assured that, as an organisation, the council acts and behaves appropriately in this respect.

“I am satisfied that this is the case. However, this has given us a welcome opportunity to clarify some existing guidance, particularly for our schools, on issues such as visits from Jarl squads.

“While I understand the outcome of this may not be universally welcome, I can reassure everyone that we do have a robust system in place to make sure every complaint is taken seriously  and handled with care.”

• For the latest reaction to this council update don’t miss Friday’s Shetland Times.



  1. Johan Adamson

    So the SIC and the school’s duty to promote equality is fulfilled?

  2. Robert Smith

    How many Shetlanders actually care if the jarl squads are all male? Damned few, I’d wager.

    • John Ridland

      twa tree do gooders we too much time on there hands,

    • Johan Adamson

      Up Helly Aa for Aa has about 140 members

      • Ali Inkster

        Equality in all things, except pensions.

  3. Brian Smith

    Looking forward to reading this report …

  4. Peter Hamilton

    Legal advisers have provided the legal advice sought on one issue. An actual ruling is maybe a different thing.

    And this is not a numbers game, with “real” Shetlanders on one side and one side only.

    Popular or not, both promoting equality and securing the rights of children are the SIC’s legal obligations, and children are to be given assistance to access their rights. Plenty of folk understand that, including Tam Baillie.

    Its early days.

    • Ali Inkster

      Early days? You have been here a long time Peter, and in all that time what if anything have you done to help with Lerwick up helly aa? What have you contributed to the festival that you think that you have the right to dictate to them how they should do things?
      The squads may just decide to revive one tradition that seems to have slipped over time and that was to lampoon the pumped up and pompous in local society. You never know you may just get to take part after all. 🙂

  5. John Inkster

    Is the aim to be to make it illegal for a group of men to get together as a group of men or a group of women to get together as a group of women?
    Stag nights not allowed without women being invited, and hen nights banned unless men are invited. That is where this argument is heading.
    Personally I do not really care what happens but it should be left to those that organised the stag night to decide for themselves who is invited.

    • Johan Adamson

      No. This is not a private party. This is an event attended by tourists from all around the world, this is a fire festival and procession which parades around the centre of the town. This is actively promoted by the SIC and Promote Shetland as a tourist attraction and there is a civic reception, a public holiday for all and school lasses all over Lerwick are encouraged to participate making shields and torches until they get to P7 and then are told they can no longer be viking.

      • Michael Garriock

        @ Johan Adamson,

        The debate whether or not UHA is a ‘private party’ could be had til the cows come home, there’s valid arguments supporting both opinions. Certainly the procession and burning are held in publically owned areas, the event is ‘offiicially’ recognised by the local authority, and public services are on holiday the next day as a result.

        By all means campaign to have these things changed or stopped if you believe what you perceive UHA to be is in your opinion unacceptable. But suppose you succeeded in ensuring any female who wished to, could take part in the procession and burning, or UHA was banned from public areas until that happened. What have you achieved?

        The procession and burning are just a very small minority part of UHA, they’re a ‘shop window’, a ‘front’ to provide legitimacy and respectability to the main parts of the event. Which are the various squad and guizer meetings that occur during the year, and the parties at the venues which are open on the night, all of which are very definitely private parties where the hosts/participants make their own rules. These will only change from within, when they’re ready, if ever.

      • Johan Adamson

        @Michael Garriock
        I am fairly sure that the origins of the UHA private party after the procession was to get around the local licensing laws, not to allow individuals to exclude members of the community. It was meant to be a community event, not an exclusive party. And the very fact that tourists can obtain ‘invites’ means it cant be that private.

        Squads should be guided by the Committee on whether or not it is acceptable to invite women into a squad and many squads might then do so.

        Where the problem lies is with the JUHA excluding lasses, where there is nothing equivalent for Lerwick S1 and S2 lasses to get the day off for cultural activities while the boys are touring with their galley, and with the fact that girls are excluded from being musicians and from being in the jarl squad with their dads. Just let da lasses in.

      • Johan Adamson

        This from Shetland.org

        “Experience Up Helly Aa
        In recent years, the evening procession has been streamed live, with a chance for anyone, anywhere in the world to comment or send messages to guizers live online. Keep an eye on our Facebook page – or sign up to our newsletter – to stay up to date with plans for live broadcasts.

        If you would prefer to experience the Up Helly Aa event in person, you can watch the morning march as well as the evening torch lit procession and galley burning – these are all public events.

        If you would like to join the late night celebrations at Lerwick’s Town Hall, keep a look out in the Shetland Times towards the end of the year as a limited number of tickets will be advertised. If you are not lucky enough to get your hands on one of these you can call the Shetland Tourist Board in January (+44 (0)1595 693434) and they will put you on the waiting list for tickets.”

      • Michael Garriock

        @ Johan Adamson,

        I think you are grossly over-estimating the role and power of the UHA Committee. In my understanding they are not a ‘governing body’, they are simply ‘organisers’ who enact the decisions made by a democratic vote of all guizers with an interest to express an opinion.

        While the committee could well recommend any change in UHA rules to a guizers meeting, unless that change achieves the majority support of those present, the Committee are powerless to do any more.

        I cannot comment at any length concerning the Junior event, as by all accounts it has undergone a transformation since I was familiar with it back in the day. However, back then it had no real connection with the senior event and was run wholly independently. The Jarl was elected democratically by his age group, his squad comprised of his own group of friends, and only they had any time off during the day. For everyone else it was a normal school day, so it was not just females being excluded during the day, it was the majority of males as well.

  6. Kay Wheatcroft

    SIC may well be behaving within the law, but that does not necessarily mean they are “acting and behaving appropriately”.

  7. Peter Hamilton

    Not sure many stag nights visit primary schools during the school day though John.

    Some would say boys need to learn how to be boys sooner or later though, so might as well start them early… Not quite sure what the SIC would have to say about that.

    Perhaps schools have an obligation to tell girls how to be girls too. Or do they just leave that to others?

    Some would say there isn’t a right way or a wrong way of being a girl or a boy, and that schools have an obligation to make this clear. That’s where I thought we’d got to when Home Ec and Techy were opened up.

    It does feel like these are early days in the council considering its responsibilities. It could also be that a lot of needless unpleasantness would be spared were the Junior squad simply to be opened up to all genders.

    Perhaps the council has someone who could quietly work away at finding some common ground. Most of those who’d like to see perrie changes also have goodwill to the festival. There’s maybe an acceptance that some change is overdue from within. This isn’t a job for lawyers surely?

    • Ali Inkster

      So you have done nothing then?

  8. Jack Brunton

    As an admitted bystander when it comes to Up Helly aa and this storyline in particular I am struck, by two ironies.
    Firstly, obviously the Council’s consultation with its own legal eagles will result in a not guilty verdict. However today’s paper also carries a story about Ms. Sandison trumpeting involvement in a gender equality scheme. I mean really?
    The second, the reason for the exclusion of the female of the species from the fun bits of the last Tuesday in January is clearly because so many of the men folk are out wearing the shared frock.

  9. Mr ian Tinkler

    For goodness sake, a load of men/boys! dressing up and having an excuse to drink themselves senseless. This playtime is nothing to do with Viking heritage, just another chance for lad power to drink and to get drunk senseless. Gender is not an issue; perhaps an alcohol-driven pseudo carnival is the best description I could think of, sorry about that. Please, someone, explain the deeper meaning of this Fire festival. The Vikings, real Vikings never trucked such idiocy. Incidentally real Vikings, men and women fought alongside each other, mostly in England and did not dance around with flaming torches!!

    • John Scott

      There were basically three types of Viking. First of all, the Traders, mainly the Swedes, they looked east and forged trading deals with what is now Russia and other countries around the Baltic Sea, and beyond. Then there were the burning and pillaging group; the Danes, who were after conquest and wealth. The third group, mainly the Norwegians, wanted to explore and settle. As a symbol that they came in peace and wanted to live and integrate with the local population, they burned their boats. Thus Up Helly Aa.

      • ian tinkler

        I think you are getting a little mixed to here John. The historic references to burning one’s boats are listed below. There is no credible historical reference to Viking boat burning in history as a sign of peace. That is before the Shetland lads of last century.
        One such incident was in 711 AD, when Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula. The commander, Tariq bin Ziyad, ordered his ships to be burned.
        Another such incident was in 1519 AD, during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish commander, scuttled his ships, so that his men would have to conquer or die.
        A third such incident occurred after the Bounty mutineers reached Pitcairn Island.
        Two similar stratagems were used during the Chu–Han Contention (206–202 BCE); these have led to Chinese idioms, elaborated below.
        Also mentioned in the Roman myth of Aeneas, who burned his boats after conquering territory in Italy. Of peaceful Vikings there are none.

  10. Michael Mackay

    What I don’t understand is, women have things that only They are allowed to go to and men can’t so why are they all fired up to get out in Up-Helly-Aa in Lerwick when there are plenty throughout the winter for them.

  11. Rosa Steppanova

    I do feel for Maggie Sandison in all this. On page 14 of this week’s Shetland Times, she says gender inequality in society leads to gender inequality in the workplace and violence against women. She then states: “We must address this to help prevent violence against women.” Yet, for reason’s I can’t fathom, she not only fails to address this blatant inequality in our society, but actively approves of the SIC condoning gender inequality by supporting an organisation and event that openly discriminates against women and girls. What’s going on in your head Maggie?

  12. Peter Hamilton

    Rosa, perhaps Maggie Sandison has gone as far as she can go by saying discrimination leads to violence against women, and must therefore be challenged.

    It is maybe time to remember how dangerous life can be for an SIC Chief Executives with even a glimmer of an understanding of how things ought to be.

    The question therefore rightly goes to the SIC’s civic and political leadership : do they agree turning a blind eye to discrimination is harmful?

    As a wise Liberal German theologian once said: Not to speak is also to speak. Not to act is also to act.

    • Ian Tinkler

      “Not to speak is also to speak. Not to act is also to act”! What a load of pretentious twaddle! Just what orifice did this nonsense emanate from Peter Hamilton, and did contribute to Global Warming? Was it methane and hydrogen sulphide laced perchance? (look it up Peter if you are illiterate in the sciences.)

  13. David Spence

    I was under the impression that the tradition of Up Helly Aa, one of the founders a Mr J.J. Haldane Burgess, was for Shetlander’s to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage and connections???

    Many of the Scandinavian place names within Shetland being replaced with the Scottish/English similar title???

    It would be intriguing (and probably better) for Shetland to be under a Danish/Norwegian flag today, and to see, if any, what life would be like if the oil and gas production at Sullom Voe, was under and owned by Norway or Denmark???

    Vil Hjaltland være bedre av, Would Shetland be far better off?????? lol

  14. Michael Garriock

    Considering that one of the strong and early traditions of UHA was as an anti-Council, anti-establishment event, which very successfully lampooned and derided those in both perceived to have embarrassed themselves, or behaved overbearingly or with pomposity during the preceding year (an aspect of UHA which has sadly waned away to nothing in recent decades). Expecting UHA, to even now, heed anything the council, or any other aspect of ‘the establishment’ may say, is not without irony.

    The ‘town fathers’ of the day huffed and puffed and made disapproving noises for a very long time before tar barrelling evolved in to UHA, and even then it was a compromise. Perhaps for once our current ‘town fathers’ have learned from history (but I doubt it), and realise a full frontal assault won’t change anything.

    I’m not saying there aren’t aspects of UHA that wouldn’t benefit from catching up with the 21st C. What I am saying is that for anyone wanting to promote change, they need to understand where UHA came from, what it is now, and how it operates, and so far those are the things I am seeing as almost entirely lacking in the debate.