BRANDISHING an axe and shield, the figure at the head of the fearsome procession looked like a warrior of olden days.
But in a sign of how even one of Scotland’s most testosterone-fuelled celebrations is changing with the times, people in Shetland yesterday cheered on its first female Guizer Jarl.
Until now, the honorary role of chief Viking has always been filled by a man, but the history books were rewritten after Lesley Simpson donned armour to lead the South Mainland Up-Helly-Aa parade.
In a major break with tradition in Shetland’s 130-year history of fire festivals marking its Viking heritage, the 49-year-old primary school headteacher led the mixed-sex torchlit procession through a series of villages before overseeing the symbolic burning of a replica Viking galley.
However, the mother-of-three played down the idea that she was making history, insisting that she was just glad to play a part in a major event in the Shetland social calendar.
Speaking before the procession, she explained: “I was conscious of the potential impact this could have, but also how it could just happen depending on how I played it all.
“It is no big thing in my book, it is just something that is happening and has been happening to me for a long time, and I am quite happy to go along with it.
“Making history is overstating it. It is a community event, it is great fun, and I am delighted that I have been given this opportunity.”
She added: “It is really important to me. It has been a long build up, five years of knowing that this was going to happen, five years of people talking to me about it and wishing me the best with it and it is going to be a wonderful day.”
Ms Simpson’s special day has been years in the planning. As revealed by our sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, the committee of the South Mainland Up-Helly-Aa festival approved the move to appoint a woman to the esteemed position back in 2010.
It is a decision that has proved divisive on the archipelago.
A poll carried out yesterday by the Shetland Times newspaper found that nearly a third (31 per cent) of people did not think a woman should be a Guizer Jarl as it “goes against tradition.”
The move towards gender equality has not yet reached the islands’ main Up-Helly-Aa festival, held every January in Lerwick, where only men can take part.
In a nod to the pivotal role women played in Viking times, Ms Simpson said her character during the procession was that of Aud the Deep-Minded, a key figure in the Icelandic sagas.
Born in the ninth century AD, she was daughter of a Norwegian chieftain in the Hebrides who commanded a ship to transport her and her granddaughters to the Orkney Islands, the Faroes and Iceland, where she eventually settled.
She went on to help free slaves and give them land to start new lives.
“I’d love to have met her,” Ms Simpson said. “She was a very important person in the history of Iceland, Orkney and the Faroes.”
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