New York Tartan Day Parade – Saturday, April 6th, 2019
TARTAN WEEK NEWS

The Jarl Squad of 2019

By  |  November 27, 2018
 



NYC, are you prepared for 75 Vikings?

The Jarl Squad of 2019 have been asked to take part in the 21st New York Tartan Day Parade which takes place on Saturday 6th April 2019. The event is part of the wider celebrations, following on from the official recognition of that date being designated National Tartan Day in 1998 by the U.S. Senate – done to recognize the contributions made by Scottish-Americans to the United States.

The group are keen to participate in this and it is intended this presence is supplemented with Jarl Squad members from the 2007 and 2012 festivals since, in both those years, the Guizer Jarl’s were brothers to the 2019 Jarl – the first time in festival history this has ever occurred and unlikely to ever happen again.

The distance alone from Shetland’s principal town, Lerwick, to London is some 768 miles itself on top of the additional 3,459 miles to New York. Given this trip needs to be made along with intricate and heavy Viking costumes – including helmets, shields, boots, breastplate and amour this represents a very significant financial commitment to personal travel along with a challenging logistic cargo requirement.

A party size of 100 is proposed, but this is subject to final confirmation over the next couple of months.

What makes this year special is that it will be 3 different squads from 2007, 2012 & 2019 led by 3 brothers. Graham Nicolson, 2007 Guizer Jarl, David Nicolson, 2012 Guizer Jarl and John Nicolson, 2019 Guizer Jarl, their father Jim Nicolson was Guizer Jarl in 1979 and is out 40 years later in his youngest son’s squad.


1979 Larwick Jarl Squad Jim Nicolson Guizer Jarl

UP-Helly-Aa

Up-Helly-Aa is a traditional cultural festival which originated, and is still held annually, in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, in the 1880s. The festival is entirely run by volunteers and provides a superb spectacle and celebration of Shetland history. It is a great demonstration of islanders’ skills and spirit.

The key element of the festival is the annual appearance of the Jarl’s Squad. This is a group of festival participants traditionally clothed and decorated in Viking suit/costume and led by the ‘Guizer Jarl’ who has served for 15 years on the festival’s organising Committee.

Viking Festival, Up-Helly-Aa in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

The Forming of a Jarl Squad


Each year the Jarl is responsible for selecting friends, colleagues and associates to form the Jarl’s Squad, meaning that a different group takes on the main central role in the festival every year. The group usually consists of around 50-60 people, including children, who visit local hospitals, schools and care homes during festival day and then take part in Europe’s largest fire festival in the evening – a torch lit procession involving around 1,000 participants, followed by celebrations through the night involving song, dance and fun.

Modern Day Vikings Celebrate Up-Helly-Aa

The Jarl Squad of 2019 have been asked to take part in the 21st New York Tartan Day Parade which takes place on Saturday 6th April 2019. The event is part of the wider celebrations, following on from the official recognition of that date being designated National Tartan Day in 1998 by the U.S. Senate – done to recognise the contributions made by Scottish-Americans to the United States.

The group are keen to participate in this and it is intended this presence is supplemented with Jarl Squad members from the 2007 and 2012 festivals since, in both those years, the Guizer Jarl’s were brothers to the 2019 Jarl – the first time in festival history this has ever occurred and unlikely to ever happen again.

The distance alone from Shetland’s principal town, Lerwick, to London is some 768 miles itself on top of the additional 3,459 miles to New York. Given this trip needs to be made along with intricate and heavy Viking costumes – including helmets, shields, boots, breastplate and armour this represents a very significant financial commitment to personal travel along with a challenging logistic cargo requirement.

A party size of 100 is proposed, but this is subject to final confirmation over the next couple of months.

Background to the Up Helly Aa Festival

Tuesday 30th January 2018 – “There will be no postponement for weather”. That’s a defiant boast by Shetland’s biggest fire festival, considering it’s held in mid-winter on the same latitude as southern Greenland. But it’s true: gales, sleet and snow have never yet stopped the Up Helly Aa guizers of Lerwick from burning their Viking galley – and then dancing the dawn away.

Up Helly Aa is a lot more than a sub-arctic bonfire. It’s a superb spectacle, a celebration of Shetland history, and a triumphant demonstration of islanders’ skills and spirit. This northern Mardi Gras, run entirely by volunteers, lasts just one day (and all the following night). But it takes several thousand people 364 days to organise. Much of the preparation is in strictest secrecy. The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival, the ‘Guizer Jarl’, will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas he’ll represent.
It sounds wonderful, and it is. Shetland is so peaceful and quiet – until Up Helly Aa that is, which was an amazing experience never to be forgotten.

The Jarl – Lord of Lerwick for a day and a night – Lerwick’s Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of his life for 15 years or more, before he dons his raven-winged helmet, grabs axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon. Along with the rest of the committed, volunteer crew, he’ll have spent thousands of hours preparing each and every Up Helly Aa and its associated events, until his big day dawns.

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, almost 1,000 heavily-disguised men, in groups called ‘squads’, form ranks in the darkened streets of Shetland’s capital. Only the lead, or Jarl Squad, wear Viking dress. The rest are in costumes ranging from the almost sublime to the totally ridiculous. The women of Lerwick play a huge part in the festival – organising, hosting at the halls, preparing and catering.

For many it is the social highlight of the year – dancing, seeing old friends, and enjoying the occasional drink in what was originally an entirely ‘dry’ festival aimed at encouraging abstinence. Officially, in some halls more than others, it still is!

Each guizer shoulders a stout fencing post, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking. On the stroke of 7.30pm, a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall. The torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl in the blacked out streets, standing proudly at the helm of his doomed replica long ship, or ‘galley’.
It takes half an hour for the Jarl’s squad of Vikings to drag him to the burning site, through a crowd of 5,000 spectators or more.

The Amazing Blaze

The guizers circle the dragon ship in a slow-motion Catherine Wheel of fire. Another rocket explodes overhead. The Jarl leaves his ship, to a crescendo of cheers. A bugle call sounds, and then the torches are hurled into the galley. As the inferno destroys four months of painstaking work by the galley builders, the crowd sings ‘The Norseman’s Home’ – a stirring requiem that can bring tears to the eyes of the hardiest Viking.

Tears of mirth are more likely as the night rolls on and more than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen halls in rotation. They’re all invited guests at what are still private parties – apart from a couple of halls where tickets are on sale to the general public.

At every hall each squad performs its ‘act’, perhaps a skit on local events, a dance display in spectacular costume, or a topical send-up of a popular TV show or pop group.

Every guizer has a duty (as the ‘Up Helly Aa Song’ says) to dance with at least one of the ladies in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks.
It’s a fast and furious night – the day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday.

Historical Notes on the Up-Helly-Aa Festival

UP-HELLY-AA is a relatively modern festival. There is some evidence that people in rural Shetland celebrated 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 Napoleonic Wars, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms.

On old Christmas eve in 1824 a visiting Methodist missionary wrote in his diary that “the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night – the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.”

As Lerwick grew in size the celebrations became more elaborate. Sometime about 1840 the participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings. “Sometimes”, as one observer wrote, “there were two tubs fastened to a great raft-like frame knocked together at the Docks, whence the combustibles were generally obtained. Two chains were fastened to the bogie supporting the capacious tub or tar-barrel . . . eked to these were two strong ropes on which a motley mob, wearing masks for the most part, fastened. A party of about a dozen were told off to stir up the molten contents.”

The main street of Lerwick in the mid-19th century was extremely narrow, and rival groups of tarbarrelers frequently clashed in the middle. The proceeding were thus dangerous and dirty, and Lerwick’s middle classes often complained about them. The Town Council began to appoint special constables every Christmas to control the revellers, with only limited success. When the end came for tar-barrelling, in the early 1870s, it seems to have been because the young Lerwegians themselves had decided it was time for a change.

Around 1870 a group of young men in the town with intellectual interests injected a series of new ideas into the proceedings. First, they improvised the name Up-Helly-Aa, and gradually postponed the celebrations until the end of January. Secondly, they introduced a far more elaborate element of disguise – “guizing” – into the new festival.

Thirdly, they inaugurated a torchlight procession. At the same time they were toying with the idea of introducing Viking themes to their new festival. The first signs of this new development appeared in 1877, but it was not until the late 1880s that a Viking long ship – the “galley” – appeared, and as late as 1906 that a “Guizer Jarl”, the chief guizer, arrived on the scene. It was not until after the First World War that there was a squad of Vikings, the “Guizer Jarl’s Squad”, in the procession every year.
Up to the Second World War Up-Helly-Aa was overwhelmingly a festival of young working class men – women have never taken part in the procession – and during the depression years the operation was run on a shoestring. In the winter of 1931-32 there was an unsuccessful move to cancel the festival because of the dire economic situation in the town. At the same time, the Up-Helly-Aa committee became a self-confident organisation which poked fun at the pompous in the by then long established Up-Helly-Aa “bill” – sometimes driving their victims to fury.

Since 1949, when the festival resumed after the war, much has changed and much has remained the same. That year the BBC recorded a major radio programme on Up-Helly-Aa, and from that moment Up-Helly-Aa – not noted for its split-second timing before the war – became a model of efficient organisation. The numbers participating in the festival have become much greater, and the resources required correspondingly larger.

Whereas in the 19th century individuals kept open house to welcome the guizers on Up-Helly-Aa night, men and women now co-operate to open large halls throughout the town to entertain them. However, despite the changes, there are numerous threads connecting the Up-Helly-Aa of today with its predecessors 150 years ago.

The Brand of Up Helly Aa

The festival provides a large number of Google matches to the term Up Helly Aa as seen below. Selected international press and media hyperlinks are also included which provide some illustration of the gravity and impact of the festival, and the Jarl Squad’s role within it.


Due to its unique nature, the festival itself attracts much media attention annually, with the Viking ‘Jarl’s Squad’ the main attraction. This is reflected in National and International coverage each year following the event and a selection of links are provided below for background.

Daily Telegraph (UK)
Up Helly Aa – Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands
Modern-day Vikings celebrate ‘Up Helly Aa Viking’ fire festival in Shetlands
Vikings gather for Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland Islands

The Guardian (UK)
Shetland’s Up Helly Aa Viking festival 2018
Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland

The Daily Mail (UK)
Vikings of all ages push the burning boat out for Up Helly Aa

Revolver Magazine (USA)
UP HELLY AA: INSIDE SHETLAND’S INSANE VIKING FIRE FESTIVAL

Atlas Obscura (USA)
Up Helly Aa

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