SHETLAND'S UP-HELLY-A' FESTIVAL - VIKINGS WITH ATTITUDE - by Garry Barnsley OAM
Flickering torchlight begins to illuminate the dark, cold granite walls as they glow brighter and warmer. The torchlight comes from huge flaming brands, fully 5 feet long - still yet obscured out of line of sight.
Then, the first of the procession begins to appear: 832 torchbearers, two or more abreast, stream along narrow streets that bear names extolling a Nordic past - King Erik Street, St Olaf Street, King Harald Street...
They march to the sound of tacketty boots on the cobbles and the klinketty-jink of body armour.
Next, the dragon's head appears with its bulbous eyes and saw-toothed mouth - as fearful-looking a beastie as any that terrorised the coasts of Old Britain centuries ago when the dreaded Norsemen came to pillage and plunder. Then the rest of the Viking longship glides into view...
This should perhaps be Oslo but instead it's Lerwick, the capital of Scotland's Shetland Isles. Here, the 30,000 Shetlanders who occupy fewer than 20 of the 100 islands that make up what the Romans called their Ultima Thule (End of the World), cherish their Viking ancestry and stand outside the mainstream of Scottish history and traditions, preferring their Norse connections.
With Norway only 100 miles to the east, it's no wonder that in the 8th and 9th centuries the Norsemen came in their longships with dragon figureheads. They came to scavenge but over the centuries enough stayed to settle, so that even today the Shetlanders speak their Scots English with a Scandinavian lilt and place names abound that recall the Viking influence.
The torchbearers are closer now. The flames light up winged helmets, glittering chain mail, capes and furs and decorated circular shields. Bearded faces, framed by battleaxes, speak of earlier ferocious times.
Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,
Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;
Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past;
We answer it 'A-oi'!
Roll their glory down the ages,
Sons of warriors and sages,
When the fight for Freedom rages,
Be bold and strong as they!
These are the Jarl's men - his Guizers - ordinary Shetlanders disguised for 24 hours in the extraordinary magnificence of their Viking battledress.
Other squads of torchbearers join them to encircle the galley. They sing The Galley Song to an old Norwegian melody:-
Floats the raven banner o'er us,
Round our Dragon Ship we stand,
Voices joined in gladsome chorus,
Raised aloft the flaming brand.
Worthy sons of Vikings make us,
Truth be our encircling fire.
Shadowy visions backward take us
To the Sea-King's fun'ral pyre.
At the sound of the last note of the bugle call, flaming torches arch through the blackness into the galley, igniting the memory of a time when the dead Viking King would be sent to Valhalla in fiery splendour, wrapped in furs, his weapons by his side, and his longship lighting the way to the next world as it burned to the waterline.
Earlier that day the Guizer Jarl led his squad to Alexander Wharf, escorted by the town's pipe band, for the first photo opportunity of the festival.
Until 1939 the galley would have been moored nearby awaiting its final blaze of glory, but in modern times the impressive vessel arrives chariot-style, wheeled in by the attentive craftsmen who constructed it during the long near-Arctic nights.
Mounted in the vessel, just behind the dragon's head, is a blood-red 'severed hand', pole mounted, fingers upright - symbolising what? A warning to shirkers and traitors perhaps? Or just another primitive, but highly effective, means of sledging your opponents...
The fire rages, fed by 832 big matchsticks, consuming sails, masts, dragonhead and finally the boldly striped hull of the longship.
Earlier, in line with tradition, the Guizer Jarl had been warmly greeted by his ferocious-looking, full-bearded Vikings. After a bloodthirsty roar and much waving of swords and battleaxes they broke into a rendition of the Jarl's carefully chosen theme song for the procession.
Smiles and more than a few chuckles among the onlookers accompany the realisation that this year's Jarl has a sense of humour. The happy wanderers are singing Zippidy -Do Da... Zippidy-Ay ... My, O my, what a beautiful day...
As the fire subsides into red-glowing embers, the night is still young - and just as well. Serious carousing is now the Jarl's command to his 48 squads, each squad averaging 19 men (yes, men only) charged with the task of providing not-so-serious entertainment at 11 halls around Lerwick.
Off they go in rotation, their visit to each hall interspersed by much jovial drinking, dancing, eating - and more drinking. Each squad has devised a party piece - the costumery often more aligned to Disneyland than to Norse mythology, and the content to local satire than to any Norseman's epic poem. Who ever heard of a Viking raiding party going under the name of Spice Babies or Viagra Vipers?
It's a long night, requiring stamina and training - and that's just for the audience. At about 7.00 a.m. it's finally time to head for home, still in the dark, black ice on the footpaths and on the roads. But tiredness and cold aren't enough to suppress a smile at the sight of a hitchhiking 'bunny', fluffy and pink, arm in arm with his Viking pal - for reasons of mutual support.
These warriors may still thirst for blood in their theatrical imaginations, but other thirsts have tonight been quenched in the bounty of the horn cup. Until, that is, next January - and next Up-Helly-A'.
The next Up-Helly-A' festival is on Tuesday 28 January 2014
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