Island fires up for Viking spectacular

SCOTLAND'S transport minister was yesterday among a horde of Vikings pillaging Lerwick as part of the annual Up-Helly-Aa celebrations.

Tavish Scott and local MP Alistair Carmichael were invited by the head of the festival, the "Guizer Jarl" Graham Nicolson, to join his squad of 49 fearsome Norsemen.

The spectacular event was due to culminate last night in a huge torch-lit procession and the sacrifice of a galley longship to the flames.

The Shetland capital has been celebrating its Viking heritage in this way for more than 120 years, after the unruly tar barreling went out of fashion in the harbour town.

Mr Scott, who has been growing a full beard in anticipation of the event, said: "I am having a great day out. It is all about the identity of Shetland, and that is what Up-Helly-Aa is for me."

Mr Carmichael said he was having one of his best days since being elected to represent Shetland and Orkney at Westminster, and added that being so close to his constituency ensured he had his finger on the pulse.

The Liberal Democrat MP said: "You see more people on Up-Helly-Aa day than on any other day in the year. As always, when Shetlanders have the opportunity to make their views known, they take it.

"What we have here is not just a great community celebration, but for the parliamentarians it is a 36-hour surgery.

"However, at the end of the surgery the notes might not be quite as detailed and carefully taken as I would have hoped.

"I am having a whale of a time. It is one of the best days in my life, certainly since I was elected."

Mr Nicolson has been part of the festival for as long as he can remember. His father, Jim, 73, was the Guizer Jarl in 1979, and Graham was taken out for the celebration for the first time at the age of three.

The 42-year-old father of two boys - both of them members of his squad - has built his life around the theme of fire, as he works at the town's waste-to-energy incinerator, is a retained firefighter and spends much of his spare time helping with the festival preparations.

His role in Up-Helly-Aa depicts Gunnar Egilsson, who, according to the Viking sagas, lived in the 10th century.

He and his men were known in Shetland as "berserkers", whose tempers were often fuelled by strong drink and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Yesterday, as he proudly led his Vikings through the town, he was already hoarse from all the cheering and singing.

He said: "It feels excellent. My voice is already on its way out. The boys in the squad are fantastic. To be here and get this response from the crowds is absolutely wonderful."

His wife, Lynne, added: "I always look forward to Up-Helly-Aa, there is something about the atmosphere. Lerwick just seems to buzz the last Tuesday in January every year. It's great."

The festival has often been seen as a social leveller for locals, as every year a local man is handed the freedom of the town.

Preparations for the festival are extensive and, come October, Lerwick's men are busy preparing for the big day in January, building the galley, preparing the 1,000 torches and designing the costumes.


SHETLAND - and Orkney - were ruled by the Norse for 500 years until they became part of Scotland in 1468. Shetland's Up-Helly-Aa celebrates the Norse influence with a torchlight procession through Lerwick and the burning of a replica Viking longship.

The ship, containing a brushwood funeral pyre, is set ablaze and pushed out to sea by a horde of Shetland guizers wearing horned helmets and armour, and wielding axes and spears, while others chant traditional rhymes from above the harbour wall. Everyone then heads off for a night of revelry.

The "vikings" are granted the freedom of Lerwick for 24 hours, with parties that usually wind down at about 8am.

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