The Shetland Islands around 170 kilometres (110 miles) north of mainland Scotland, and 356 miles from my own home, near Glasgow
Every year the Shetland Festival of Up Helly Aa, a fire festival, is held in Shetland, in Scotland, in the middle of winter to mark the end of the yule season. The festival involves a procession of up to a thousand guizers in Lerwick and considerably lower numbers in the more rural festivals, formed into Jarl squads who march through the town or village in a variety of themed costumes … or dressed like absolute dicks, if you’d prefer.
The current Lerwick celebration grew out of the older yule tradition of tar-barreling which took place at Christmas and New Year as well as Up Helly Aa. Squads of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges, making mischief. There is a main guizer who is dubbed the “Jarl”. The procession culminates in the torches being thrown into a replica Viking longship or galley.
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The Weather forecast was abominable on the Monday morning, and all flights had been cancelled on the previous day due to gale force winds
The plane was a Saab SF340A/B – 36 seater, twin prop plane … and not particularly to be recommended for the faint-hearted
I love flying, and don’t give a fukk … so … wheeee!!!
The weather was blustery and wet, with sleet and rain … but once above the clouds, the world is always sunny!!
After an hour and ten minutes flight in a small plane, which sounded like having your head stuck in a washing machine … Shetland appeared through the mist, hazy through the wind, rain and sleet
We were picked up by a local taxi, whose driver insisted there was “no crime on the island” … which must be a helluva surprise to the production team of the TV crime-thriller “Shetland”, which my son is currently working on … and to the local cops, I imagine.
The taxi driver said, “We had a car theft last week and that was headline news … I mean, where are they gonna take it … it’s a wee island?”
My companion, Billy Kirkwood, and I booked in at the Not-So-Grand Hotel … an old, tired building, where our rooms were fine, though not exactly luxurious, and where the windows rattled with the gale-force winds
I did a quick reconnoiter of the area around the harbour, and deduced that there were no hookers standing in doorways … They’d either been blown away, or were more sensible than I was on such a freezing wet night and were safely ensconced indoors … and only idiots were abroad.
The workers building the new gas refraction plant, and power station are staying in two large floating hotels in the harbour … The Floatel is the zebra-striped one on the right, below
The next day, we went up to The Mareel, the lovely new venue where our show was on … had lunch, and got ready for the show
Sandy Nelson had arranged the gig for Billy and myself, and compered the evening, as he regularly does each year, having been a resident there for some 5 years, until recently … and was returning for a jaunt with his lovely wife and wonderful weans
We then had a quick wander around the town of Lerwick, where we were based, spying a highly appropriately named clothes shop, KLAIZE, and some stunning stained glass in the Town Hall
The Viking Galley awaits its fiery fate … smaller and more pantomime than heritage, I felt, as was much of the iconography and the costumes on display.
By seven in the evening, we were waiting with Sandy and his family, in the cold and dark, listening for the boom of the flare-gun which announced the start of the Up Helly Aa festivities
And then there was an almighty BANG … the torches were lit, and the festival began
The galley was set ablaze amongst much singing, brass bands, pipe bands, and hearty cheers from the huge crowd … dressed as cows, can-can dancers, Santa, Blues Brothers, and every sort of Halloween style costume imaginable.
The crowd, and the entire event, is very MALE in its nature, with women being noticeable by their absence.
The major, female contribution being from the many, many men who had chosen to dress as women … mostly of the pantomime dame variety, or of the screamingly heterosexual-in-denial, drag persuasion
The Jarl Squads then set off around the halls, to perform their sketches and get mightily drunk for the rest of the night and early morning, or so I was informed
Being sober amongst all this was, I’m sure, a bit of a novelty … and probably gave me a rather different perception from the majority there
Weird … very weird
Sandy, Billy and I then headed off to The Mareel A Centre, …. passing harlequins, angels and demons …. to perform our Stand Up Helly Aa Show
Billy’s lap dancing skills being appreciated by a resident deep-sea diver
Both Billy and Sandy did a brilliant job of warming up the audience, and I had a truly lovely time, with a rather sharp, and highly appreciative, audience who, I reckon, were glad to have escaped the drunken madness of the Jarl Squads and their transvestite leanings … or so I suggested to much amusement
We went down for breakfast at 08.30 next morning, to be greeted with a dining room which featured loads of drunken guest, still in fancy dress; cows, deer, faux-hippies, cowboys, hookers and dishevelled …. and four burly BOUNCERS
Security at the breakfast table !!! … a sign of just how drunk the squads were, as they’d been at it, continually for 12 hours and were now just waiting for the bars to open again at 11am
Our taxi to the airport never arrived, of course, as the driver was probably still suitably pissed … but after hurried phone calls, a replacement arrived, and we set off for Sumburgh once more
Our taxi driver, Ray, in his 50’s and originally from Glasgow, was University educated and a wee wealth of local knowledge, and obviously infatuated with the place … such a nice man … even stopped at a passing point on the narrow road to allow me to try to photograph the raging seas along the shoreline. It was pissing down and very windy, but he stopped and was the model of courtesy and patience
He informed me that those lovely, wee Shetland ponies. which we were passing in the fields and crofts, were no more than pets nowadays, as their use down the UK’s mines, or as carriers from the crofter’s peat diggings, was now longer required, and you could buy one for £5
They were also so hardy that they stayed out in that fierce weather all year round
Tough wee fukkers, beyond a doubt
Our flight was delayed, as the incoming plane couldn’t land because of the fierce cross-winds, and was circling the airport … hmmm … that’s not confidence inspiring!!!
And so we left Shetland, as sober as we arrived, and probably part of a very small minority of tee-totallers on the island
A fantastic experience, and one more thing crossed off my Bucket List
I’d highly recommend the Up Helly Aa Festival to any of my hard-drinking, raucous mates … and I’d recommend a visit to The Mareel Theatre complex to any of my fellow performers, comedians, and musicians … a great and welcoming place
Shetland was strong in its sense of community, and is well-off in comparison to the recession-hit UK, or so it seems … the oil, the building construction, and low unemployment make that possible
Maybe they’d be even better-off, if they adopted independence … from Scotland