Missing Crowds

Today is the last Tuesday in January and would traditionally be Up Helly Aa day 2021. This is a much anticipated date for many Shetlanders and visitors alike and normally the Shetland Museum and Archives would be a hive of activity. Staff members would be eagerly preparing for the arrival of the Guizer Jarl and his Squad as well as welcoming hundreds of excited visitors, all keen to find out more about Shetland's rich heritage and get a close-up encounter with the famous Vikings. Our archives assistant, Angus Johnson shares his memories from the museum on Up Helly Aa day last year.

It’s nearly a year now since I was last in a crowd. The last Tuesday in January 2020 in fact, when the Guizer Jarl’s squad from the Up Helly Aa festival visited the Shetland Museum and Archives. Crowds are a feature of the day, early morning around the British Legion, later on through Commercial Street, lunchtime at the harbour. Wherever the Jarl and his squad are, there’s people. In the late afternoon, the squad come to us, the only chance for those without tickets for the venues to get up close to them.

A crowd gathers at the Shetland Museum and Archives awaiting the arrival of the Jarl Squad

It takes a lot of preparation, the Lifelong Learning Officer and the Visitor Services people work hard during the run up. Their work goes well, and the museum foyer fills up early, most spaces get used, the sound of chatting and music fills the building. A bit late usually, the Jarl’s squad arrive, children’s eyes open, they point and look. Actually, so do the adults.

The squad assembles, the musicians start, and the guizers sing the Up Helly Aa Song. They’ll have one or two other songs as well, sometimes ones you might not really expect. Lately there’s been Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” and Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart.” “Enjoy Yourself,” probably via Prince Buster, may sum up the festival better than the more official songs do - “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” At least, it always seems to take that line to heart.

After that there’s a chance to mingle. There’s many a selfie. Helmets are borrowed, shields and weapons held. Laughter and friendliness among the warlike garb. In the past few years some people have visited dressed in medieval Nordic style, not just spectators, but taking part in their own way. Lots of warm, human gestures, communication, and fun. “Enjoy yourself, when you’re still in the pink.”

We won’t see that this year, our foyer will be an empty place on the last Tuesday in January. Up Helly Aa has been going well over a century now. It takes a major event indeed to cancel Up Helly Aa. Two world wars put a temporary stop to it, otherwise it postponed for flu in 1900, George V's death in 1936, and Winston Churchill's funeral in 1965. January 2022 is the next feasible date, and a lot of people in Lerwick will be hoping for the best.


Shetland Film Archive

The Shetland Film Archive and Promote Shetland are sharing a selection of films showcasing local fire festivals from 1969 to the present day. Tune in at at 7:30pm on Tuesday 26th January to celebrate Up Helly Aa day, click here to watch some heritage film and learn about the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes of Shetland's fire festivals.

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