In 6 months these 3 Jarl Squads will unite and parade up 6th Avenue in Manhattan. We can’t wait! Thank you so much to Dwayne Davies for providing us with the fascinating history and stories too.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa is a relatively modern festival. There’s some evidence that rural Shetland celebrate the 24th day after Christmas as ‘Antonsmas’ or ‘Up Helly Night’ but there is no evidence that their cousins in Lerwick did the same. The emergence of Yuletide and New Year festivities in the town seems to post-date the Napoleon Wars, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms!
As Lerwick grew in size the celebrations became more elaborate. Around 1840 the participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings. The main streets were extremely narrow, and rival groups of tar barrelers frequently clashed. The events were extremely dangerous and Lerwick’s middle classes frequently complained about them. The end came for tar-barrelling in the early 1870s. It seems to have been because the young Lerwegians had decided it was time for change. The name was improvised to Up-Helly-A and celebrations were gradually postponed until the end of January. They introduced a far more elaborate element of disguise ‘guizing’ into the new festival and inaugurated a (tar free) torchlight procession.
In the late 1880s a Viking longship ‘the Galley’ appeared, and around 1906 a ‘Guizer Jarl’, the chief guizer, arrived on the scene. It wasn’t until after the First World War however that there was a squad of Vikings, the ‘Guizer Jarl Squad’ in the procession every year.
Despite some changes, additional resources and of course moving with the times there are numerous threads connecting the Up Helly A of today with the predecessors 150 years ago.
Up Helly Aa in Lerwick is due to take place on January 28 2020 lead by Liam Summers.