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Shetland, 2006                                                                                        Back to Road Trips

Our visit to Shetland was primarily to spend time with Jackie's Granny (aged 92), so the pubbing took a back burner. We did however enjoy Up-Helly-Aa, a Shetland tradition since at least the turn of the century....the 1900's that is.

January 30 2006

Family friends, Geordie & Erica Hunter, came to Granny’s at 8 pm to pick us up and take us to the Galley Shed.  The night before Up-Helly-Aa is a big night for the Guizer Jarl and his Squad.  The media are all there, and they unveil the Proclamation, which is a huge board that gets placed at the Market Cross at 7 am on Up-Helly-Aa day.  The Proclamation typically has innuendos and local jokes running through it – and it always has an original piece of art work which later gets framed and put up in the Galley Shed.  The painting atop the Proclamation this year was a very non-traditional painting by a good friend of the Smiths, Bobby Robertson.  Believe me, many eyebrows were raised.  It was very good, but very non-traditional and abstract.  Following the unveiling of the Proclamation, the Jarl then announces the name of his boat and places a name plaque on the boat.  This year’s Guizer Jarl chose the name Einar of Gullberuvik (Mark Manson), and his Galley was called “Moogi”.   The festivities begin once the media leave, and the whiskey starts to pour. 

Erica and Geordie took us up to the Committee room, where the walls are lined with old photos and memorabilia.  It takes 13 years to become the Guizer Jarl.  It is by invitation, and you serve on the Committee until it’s your turn as the Guizer Jarl.  The first “formal” or recorded Guizer Jarl was in 1906, although Up-Helly-Aa pre-dates this, it is not known exactly how long it has been going on.  Jackie’s grandfather was the Guizer Jarl in 1964 and Great-Uncle Joe in 1966.  We saw their photographs in the committee room, and also found the original art work from the Proclamation for Uncle Joe (painted by his wife Bunty Hunter) and for Geordie Hunter (also painted by Bunty).  We couldn’t find Granda’s painting, but expect Bunty also painted it.  

After a few large whiskies, we went over to Gibbie & Mildred Blance’s house with Erica & Geordie.  After the first round of whisky was poured, Mildred thought it would be a good idea to phone Jackie’s Mom and Dad in Quesnel so everyone could have a chat and reminisce.  This was followed by sandwiches, more whisky, and stories about Jackie’s parents (Heather & George).   A 45 rpm recording of the Up-Helly-Aa song was played – Aidan needed to learn the words.  Mildred & Gibbie’s son-in-law dropped by with the program for the following day – hot off the press since he works for the publisher (you didn’t hear this!).  More whisky, and Willie Hunter 33 rpm records – very hard to find these days….. 

Gibbie disappeared for a few minutes, and returned dressed in his costume from his most recent time on the Jarl Squad.  Jackie tried on the helmet and the held the shield for a photo.  Aidan donned all the gear, and looked great! 

More whisky was consumed.  More stories told.  Mildred had a bottle of Highland Park tucked away which appeared (and then disappeared!).  A good time was had by all.   It was at least 1 am when we stumbled up Bells Brae and down Hayfield Lane to Granny’s house.

January 31, 2006 - Up-Helly-Aa Day

It is a big day for the Guizer Jarl  - the Proclamation is brought to the Market Cross, the Guizer Jarl and his Squad pose for photos with the galley and they spend the rest of the day visiting schools and hospitals.   

We left Granny’s at 6:30 pm to get a good spot for the procession and Galley burning.  There were already hundreds of people down there, and there were no “prime” spots available.  We spied two little old ladies that had a wall spot, and were about chest height (5 feet tall) – we planted ourselves behind them and had a perfect view.  The skies were clear and we star-gazed as we waited for the torches to be lit and the procession to begin.  It was a bit chilly, and we were glad that we had brought a “wee nip” in a hip flask to keep us warm.

The street lights were turned off, and at about 7:15 the sky turned red up at the Town Hall as 970 guizers lit their torches.   The band struck up the Up-Helly-Aa song and the procession began.  The guizer Jarl Squad, manually pulling the Galley, headed up the procession and the other guizers follow.  The other guizers are also in squads, each dressed up differently with a different theme - we will talk a bit more about this later.  They wound their way through the streets and ended up at the playing park, where the Galley was placed in the centre and all 970 guizers circled it.  The Guizer Jarl led them in the mournful “Norseman’s Home” song, and the torches were thrown into the Galley, all 970 of them.  The flames shot high into the cloudless sky and the fireworks wowed the crowd.   

The crowd dispersed and we headed back to Granny’s to put the digital photos on the computer and give Granny a slide show!  She enjoyed it!  

Many many, years ago it was tradition for people to open their homes up after the processions and welcome all the guizers.  The guizers went to each house, enjoying the beverages and food supplied by each host.  As Up-Helly-Aa grew, these house parties became out of hand, and groups started organizing parties in larger venues.  These venues, or Halls, are rented out by groups, and as a host you have a share in that venue.  There are only a limited number of halls and a limited number of shares.  As a host or hostess with a share, you take turns serving up hot soup, and sandwiches, and ensure all your guests are looked after.  Since there are a limited number of shares, there are also a limited number of tickets given to each shareholder and they give these tickets to their friends.  They are not sold, but are by invitation only.  We were able to get tickets for the Clickamin Centre, less than a block from Granny’s house…….perfect! 

Since the men are in the squads (no women allowed), the Halls are typically filled with the wives and girlfriends.  The squads go to each hall in turn and do a skit and entertain. Then the band plays the dance of the squad’s choice (usually a Boston two-step or a St. Bernard’s Waltz – but Jackie even got Aidan to do a Gay Gordons!).  There were 48 squads this year.   

There was no smoking at the Clickamin, which was fantastic.  It was quite funny how it was all set up.  There is no booze for sale.  You bring your own – we had a small bag, but some bring suitcases on wheels……!! You also bring plastic cups.  There is a drinking area, and a separate eating area, and all the squads and dancing is done in a separate area. It’s good as it keeps it a family event.   

We arrived at about 9:30 pm and had missed the first couple of squads.  We had a quick drink (Aidan a John Smith’s and Jackie a Highland Park – another good story that will be told below) and headed in to the main hall.  We knew a few people and had a few dances and watched a few squads and had another drink.  It is hard to tell how much you are actually consuming, as we were given drams by others, and also gave out a few drams, but we paced ourselves quite well and ate sausage rolls and sandwiches regularly.  At one point we actually had a cup of caffeinated tea as we were fading.  This was probably at about 4 am.  After about 5 am we knew we were going to make it to the end.  Besides our friend Angus’ squad hadn’t been through yet and we had heard he was dressed as Britney Spears…..

Our favourite squads were:  

-         Dueling banjos, strapped to a contraption where they “wobbled like a weeble but they didn’t fall down”

-         “No Puffins” – a pun about the up coming no smoking laws and puffins (local birds)

-         Dr. Who – excellent Dalek costumes

-         “trash” – a pun on a local garbage dump political issue – they drummed on different plastic and metal garbage and sounded fantastic 

The Guizer Jarl and his squad came through our hall at about 5:30 am.  Angus came through at about 7 am.  The last squad came through at 8:00 am, and we were done!! The Highland Park was gone.  There were still one or two cans of beer left.  We nipped up to Granny’s to drop off the empties, and then walked across town to Baroc, a bar that had advertised breakfast from 7:30 am.  They unfortunately (or fortunately??!!) weren’t serving alcohol, but the breakfast was good – baked beans, black pudding, real bacon, eggs, and fried bread.  We were home and in bed at about 9:30 am. 

We found out later that the Thule Bar, one of the less desirable bars, was not only serving bacon in a bun, but was also serving alcohol! Next time……

The Highland Park story:  Highland Park 12 year is a beautiful peated malt from the Orkney Islands.  Michael Jackson ranked it very highly in his influential Malt Whisky companion, and it sells in BC for $65.  At the grocery store in Lerwick, it is regularly priced at £19 ($38).  However, it was on sale for £16 ($32), literally half the price. 

For more information on Shetland and Up-Helly-Aa, please check out the following links: