Stephen was born to be Viking warrior

A member of The Jarl squad in procession, at Lerwick Harbour, in advance of Up-Helly-Aa fire festival .
A member of The Jarl squad in procession, at Lerwick Harbour, in advance of Up-Helly-Aa fire festival .

A BorderS man is being honoured as the chief viking, or ‘Guizer Jarl, in Shetland’s traditional fire festival Up Helly Aa this week.

Seaman Stephen Grant, originally from Yarrow, is the principal character in Europe’s biggest fire festival this year, which celebrates the Shetland Isles’ Viking heritage, and culminates with the dramatic burning of a replica Viking longship.

Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick. Picture: Donald MacLeod

The spectacular annual event features a band of latter-day Viking warriors known as the Jarl Squad, who spend much of the day making public appearances, before dragging the Viking galley through the streets of the town in a torch-lit procession at nightfall.

The torchbearers are the members (called ‘guizers’) of all the squads, led by the Jarl Squad. The main ‘guizer’ is dubbed the ‘Jarl’, and each Guizer Jarl takes the name of a figure in Norse legend. Each squad chooses a theme, and dresses accordingly. The Jarl Squad then hurls burning torches into the Viking galley to set it alight, before putting it out to sea, and going on to a night of partying.

Any available large room is pressed into service as a hall, presided over by a hostess who issues invitations to attend, and every guizer squad visits every hall in turn to dance and drink with the guests. As there can be dozens of squads and dozens of halls, this takes most of the night and well into the following morning.

Grant, who lives in Lerwick and works on the tug boats at Sullom Voe, has been a guizer for 40 years, since he was a young lad of 14, and has only missed the festival twice. He still has many relatives in the Borders, and some are planning to join him for his great day.

Like a Selkirk Standard Bearer, a Shetlander is assured his place as the Guizer Jarl after patiently waiting many years to take his turn – in Grant’s case, 14 years spent on the Up Helly Aa committee.

All Guizer Jarls must be chosen from the committee’s 17 members, who, when elected, had to raise enough votes among their fans and friends to beat any competition for the place. Only one place on the committee becomes vacant each year, unless a committee member retires, leaves for some reason, or dies in office.

Stephen’s devotion to the fire festival would break lesser men: as a foreman painter of the viking galley for 15 years, he had to watch his creation being set alight and going up in smoke every year, and then doing it all again the next year. As the Guizer Jarl, this is the first year in 15 that he hasn’t actually taken part in building it.

The seaman, who is normally clean-shaven with a crew cut, has even carefully cultivated a long viking beard for the last 18 months, and Stephen’s Viking costume, which his squad estimates to weigh about three and a half stone, took him eight weeks to design, let alone manufacture.

To be a true Viking, you also need a proper Viking name, so each Guizer Jarl chooses a character from the Norse sagas to identify with. Stephen has chosen Gamle Eriksson: nephew to the King of Norway, who, after spotting a chance to attempt a takeover of the throne, set off around the Scandinavian countries and islands to gather men to do battle.

Each squad also devises and performs a dance routine or sketch at each of the 12 halls around the town, which may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing – so it’s a job that requires a streak of exhibitionism,

The job of Guizer Jarl also requires plenty of stamina, for his squad puts in a gruelling day of appearances, visiting schools, old folks’ homes, the hospital, lining the route to support the junior guizers’ procession, and then leading the main procession and the burning of the galley, before spending all night entertaining and dancing at the halls.

But he will have plenty of help, for Stephen’s usual squad of 25 guizers has been boosted to 70 for his year as Guizer Jarl, with friends and family returning to Lerwick from all over the world for the occasion, from as far as Norway, Australia and Singapore.

The current Lerwick celebration grew out of the older yule tradition of tar barrelling, which took place at Christmas and New Year as well as Up Helly Aa. Squads of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges, making mischief. After the abolition of tar barrelling around 1874–1880, permission was eventually obtained for torch processions. The first yule torch procession took place in 1876, and the first galley was burned in 1889.

The name derives from the Old Norse word ‘uppi’, in the sense of something being at an end, while helly refers to a holy day or festival. The event, which marks the end of the yule period and takes place on the last Tuesday every January, happens all over Shetland and is currently celebrated at ten locations: Scalloway, Lerwick, Nesting and Girlsta, Uyeasound, Northmavine, Bressay, Cullivoe, Norwick, the South Mainland and Delting.