DELTING UP HELLY AA
It was raining well before 6 am on the day of the Up Helly Aa at Delting. Raining very hard at seven. Pouring at eight, by nine there was a deluge, and at ten rain, wind, hail and storm. I would have gone up into Brae to see the Muster, but Thebus is too large to drive round to odd places, and the thought of struggling with the Wretched Rack then driving through filthy weather seemed a bit pointless. So Phoebe and I stayed in the warm and dry. We have electric hookup here, so with the fan pointed at my feet and Phoebe’s bed we were quite happy.
The old saying worked well and just gone eleven the sun was shining so strongly I had to draw the curtains – I took some photos but again the sun was shining right into the camera across the water so it was all reflections, and my camera skills are purely point and click so they didn’t come out. The sun only lasted for around a quarter of an hour though, then back to squalls. I pity the 'Vikings' on duty today. I hope they have their thermals on. I would have thought the original Vikings wore trousers, and I think I read somewhere that Julius Caesar was against the legionaries wearing trousers, so they must have come across them, and that eventually the patrols on Hadrian's Wall were allowed to wear trousers and socks.
Early afternoon there was a knock at Thebus' door and it was Marina, one of the ladies I had met at the Craft Circle. She had come to offer to take me up to where the Up Helly Aa Galley was on show, and also take me to meet her parents. We both needed to stop at the shop so I took the opportunity of buying more of the delicious treacle pancakes, then on to her parents both true Shetlanders, very genuine and very welcoming, where we had a lovely tea with homemade oatmeal biscuits and jam as part of the spread.
Marina's father had a wicked sense of humour, and knowing this someone had given him a 'wind machine' This was not one of the many green credentialled alternative energy producing wind machines, but a practical joke, radio controlled 'wind-breaking' machine which produced remarkable realistic noises and could be controlled in volume or frequency at will. Apparently his aunt, in her nineties, and with the family sense of humour asked to borrow it whilst in post-op respite care. Ringing the bell for an auxiliary nurse to take her to the toilet, she pressed it on low volume with short bursts as he began to push the wheelchair, then as they progressed towards the loos she pressed it louder and more often, and at each blast the nurse increased his pace, until finally almost at a run they reached their goal, where she almost collapsed laughing and he did the same when she told him, though probably suffering from lack of breath as well.
Marina had purchased some food from the shop to make a large pot of chilli for any pre and post Up Helly Aa revellers that landed up at their house in Brae, and not only was I invited to supper, but Marina suggested that we then viewed the procession as it wound its way round the bay from a house belonging to her sister, which was next door to the Boating Club then, after it had passed, we could follow the galley down to the slip for the burning.
Even from across the bay we could see the torches being lit and then snaking their way towards us – 400 in all, a magnificent sight. Marina told me how when she was in the junior school one of the teachers had instigated the first of the Delting Up Helly Aa which, at first had been a school based occasion. But as the youngsters had grown, then got families of their own it had gradually increased until now it is the second biggest in Shetland, The genuine joy and excitement of those involved was palpable. And the Guiser Yarl that year was, in fact, the son of that original teacher who hailed from Papa Stour.
The wind was strong, but the horrible rain of the morning was holding off and did so for the next twenty four hours, but smoke and huge sparks billowed in all directions. Because of the strong winds and length of the processional route many of the torches had burnt out on the way, but there were still masses when they arrived at the Boat Club.
The Galley had been hauled by hand all the way, and after a short speech and suitable quantities of Up Helly Aarrrghhing and cheering the torches were thrown in. The Galley was down on the slip and gradually floated out into the harbour, and there was considerable skill and strength needed to aim and throw the burning torches accurately, but it was soon well and truly alight and out in the harbour.
By now the time was getting on, and I was more than a little worried about Phoebe especially with all the noise and people, though this is her second Up Helly Aa, the first one passing within feet of Thebus But when the first of the fireworks went off I was even more anxious. We were on the far side of the crowd from Thebus so there was little I could do, and the fireworks didn’t last long, but were spectacular, and with the wind a lot of them were bursting in the air right over Thebus and Phoebe.
As soon as possible Marina and I made it over to Thebus, but Phoebe was so intent on her guarding duties in my absence that she was too busy think about being worried, She certainly seemed fine when I got back, though obviously pleased to see me. Marina went to fetch the car now the crowds had cleared, and I let Phoebe out for a leg stretch, Within a few minutes the firework marshalls had arrived to see she was alright. They had spotted her in Thebus and knocked to warn us of the planned firework display, but got no reply except a severe barking at from Phoebe. And as soon as they could they had come down to see she was ok. Typical kind, thoughtful, caring Shetlanders. They were mostly young men and were fascinated with Thebus, and all came in to have a look round and admire, and make a fuss of Phoebe.
When Marina got back with the car and my shopping she asked if I might like to go to the Boating Club for the entertainments, which I was delighted to do, and we both had a wonderful evening, well evening and morning, as it didn’t finish till gone 4 am! But it was well worth staying up for. When we arrived the band was in full flight and the audience and guisers were flying round the room to the Dashing White Sergeant. The band, which was excellent, played on for the entire evening only stopping for supper and during the entertainment sessions. Talk about a marathon performance! The various squads of guisers arrived by bus to perform their entertainment for the evening and were visited each of the halls in turn. Normally there were two or three groups at any one hall watching each others acts, then staying for the traditional Shetland dances in between the acts. I have to say it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, the guisers were great, having put masses of time and effort into their acts, and watching the dancing and hearing the top-tapping tunes so expertly played was a real treat.
The Shetlanders have an energy and enthusiasm for life, and they are not afraid to express it, and appear completely at ease with themselves, qualities not always found in other parts of the UK. They regard themselves as uniquely Shetlanders, and I sensed no ties or affinity with Scotland almost the opposite, though most seem to be happy to be a part of the UK. I was told on many occasions by different folk that they are Zetland, which was part of Norway, but in 1462 when Princess Margaret was married the Scottish King James III, she went with a considerable dowry, Shetland and Orkney being pledged in default of a payment of 20000 Silver Florins. And I was told that should Norway choose to redeem the pledge they could buy it back again, and Shetland return to Norway, Another regularly used quote was that Shetland is 170 miles from Norway and 170 miles from Aberdeen. Possibly a more appropriate comparison would be that it is 230 miles from Lerwick to Bergen and 320 miles from Lerwick to Edinburgh. Also with the strong Shetland sailing tradition it would be much easier to sail to Bergen than to Edinburgh, likely resulting in many intermarriages between Norway and Shetland making for ties that bind
They obviously feel very Viking, and the Up Helly Aa tradition means far more to them than just a bit of dressing up, and a chance to get drunk, so I had a quick google for some background information and this is what I came up with
Up Helly Aa is thought to mean – Up =end Helly=Holy or Holi-day Aa = all in other words the end of the holidays. In an older yule tradition of tar barrelling, which took place at around this time, squads of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through the towns on sledges, making mischief. Because of the nuisance caused by the Tar Barrelling Tradition it was forbidden by law, but later permission was given for torch light processions, the first taking place in 1876 and the first torch procession to be held on Up Helly Aa day in 1881. The following year Up Helly Aa became institutionalised when Lerwick requested a torch procession on Up Helly Aa to honour the visit of the then Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria, and 1889 was the first year a galley was burnt as part of the festivities . The best known and largest of the Up Helly Aa is held at Lerwick where 2000 torchbearers march in the procession, and as far as I can see the rest of the world thinks this is the one and only Up Helly Aa, but in fact they are held all over Shetland, as would have been the original tar barrelling festivities, so Scalloway ,Lerwick,Nesting and Girlsta, Uyeasound, Northmavine, Bressay, Cullivoe, Norwick, the South Mainland and Delting, each have their own in that order
It is a major effort on the part of each community, with the building of the galleys and the preparations of the various costumes beginning the preceeding autumn. The Guiser (disguised) Yarl (Earl) will have served on the Up Helly Aa committee for at least 15 years before leading the celebrations for that year
The day starts at breakfast and the Yarl Squad then visit all round the local community. As darkness falls they assemble by the galley then march with lit torches escorting it to the burning ground, and the torches are then thrown in with sometimes the burning galley being floated out to sea, After the mast has burnt through and collapsed onto the burning galley the various squads who are disguised for the entertainments they have prepared visit local halls where private parties are held. At each hall, each squad performs its act, which may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing, before moving on to the next hall. If there are a lot of acts and halls this can take until the early hours of next morning.
In our case, and probably at all the Up Helly Aas there is a break for supper at around 11pm with Mutton Broth being invariably served, and very good Mutton Broth it was too - I might have to get the recipe - plus various sandwiches and cakes.
The audience thinned somewhat as the night wore on, but as the Yarl Squad was to end up at our 'Hall' quite a few more arrived as we approached the climax of the evening, and then in burst the Yarl and his Squad wonderfully dressed, apparently taking great pride in designing and making everything they use in their costumes and the parade over the preceding year. Each year the Yarl chooses the 'Viking' he will represent, and all the shields and costumes are designed specially for the Viking he represents. He chooses his own squad, and the men all grow full beards, nowadays often raising sponsorship money by having them shaved off the day after.
His speech of thanks at the end of the evening showed what a real honour and privilege it is to be chosen to be Yarl by your community, and the Up Helly Aa seems to bind them all together. As I have said before I think Shetland would be a wonderful place to live, not only for its beautiful scenery, which I have only seen it in what the locals tell me is the wettest year they can remember - but for the people of Shetland.
Delting Up Helly Aa Galley 2014 with Marina standing beside it
Below the shields on the galley, all painted by the junior school childen
The beautiful polished prow
of the Viking Galley
hand-carved from a
piece of driftwood
It is rescued before the burning
and saved from year to year
Viewed from across the bay as darkness fell, the photo above shows the torches being lit, then below as they begin the long march carrying the
heavy torches and pulling the Galley to the burning site
Click on any of the photos above to bring up a larger image