Up Helly Aa: Change, with women finally allowed in the Jarl Squad, was painfully slow at super macho event
I suspect there were more than a few people who would have been quite happy in keeping things at Up Helly Aa just the way they were. But for organisers of the celebration of Shetland’s Norse culture, the question of how women were represented at the event was just not going away.
After more than 40 years of noises and nudges about the exclusion of women from the key parts of Up Helly Aa, on Tuesday night they were allowed in the Jarl Squad for the first time since the tradition began in the 1880s.
The squad is essentially the inner circle of the Guizer Jarl, this year played by Richard Moar, who represented 13th-century ruler King Harald Olafsson. He was joined in his duties by his daughter Jenna and his three nieces as they toured Lerwick throughout the day and then led the giant torchlit procession that ends in the spectacular burning of the galley boat at night.
It is an event rightly held close and proud by the people of Lerwick, who spend a great deal of the year preparing for next year’s spectacle as the long winter nights are given over to organising events of the third Tuesday in January, a night that far outstrips Hogmanay in importance locally.
Organising Up Helly Aa was always divided by the sexes, with men taking to the galley shed to build the boat to the highest levels of craftsmanship and the ‘torch boys' dipping around 1,200 torches in heating fuel ahead of the procession.
Meanwhile, women meet in houses to plan and stitch the incredible Viking costumes, a role taken with great pride and care. Women are also key to the all-night parties that run in the various halls across Lerwick, a role of ultimate distinction at Up Helly Aa given the importance of these “hostesses” in the execution of the most memorable shindig of the year.
But women were only represented in the processions if one of the guizers dressed up as a member of the opposite sex, perhaps in fishnet tights and a badly stuffed bra.
A few years ago, the mood around a woman’s role at Up Helly Aa started to sharpen when a shop window in Lerwick featured a female dummy dressed in Viking costume. Groups such as Up Helly Aa for Aa became more visible, and answers to questions about why women weren’t allowed in the procession started to get fewer and far between.
Last year, a breakthrough was made when the committee, in planning its Covid comeback, permitted females to take part in the torchlit procession for the first time in its 142-year history.
With the move of women into the Jarl Squad this year, Lerwick Up Helly Aa has finally caught up with smaller festivals across Shetland. in 2015, Lesley Simpson became Shetland’s first female Guizer Jarl at the South Mainland event.
With the Lerwick festival now recognisable on a global scale, with it used to promote Scottish tourism both at home and abroad, there was only one direction it could take. Now, with women finally taking their place at the heart of Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa, the celebration can finally move on.
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