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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Shetlands come alight with Viking 'Up Helly Aa' festival of fire

The inhabitants of Scotland's remote Shetland Islands were celebrating the spectacular "Up-Helly-Aa" festival of fire, a tradition dating back to the rugged isles' Viking past.

The event culminated in the darkness with 1,000 torch-bearing men, marching in double file, setting ablaze a full-scale Viking longship replica to commemorate the warrior race's settlement of Shetland over 1,000 years ago.

The abiding influence of the Vikings is celebrated every last Tuesday in January to mark the coming of longer daylight hours, awaited on Shetland through the depths of the northern winter.

"Up-Helly-Aa" is a variant of the Scots Uphaliday, denoting Epiphany as the end of the Christian holiday, according to the New Oxford Dictionary.

Closer to Oslo than to London, adrift in the North Sea and 150 miles (240 kilometres) northeast of the Scottish mainland, the archipelago was given to Scotland by the Danish monarchy in the 15th century.

At 8:30 am when the rising sun begins to colour the sky orange, the Jarl Squad, 53 men clad in Norse warrior gear, begin a procession through Lerwick town, led by the Guizer Jarl, the Viking chief who wears a metal helmet decorated with feathers.

Yelling and holding their axes high, the chosen men drag the "langskip" boat through the town, before it is ritually set ablaze in the main King Harald Street.

The act symbolised the point in a Viking funeral when the Viking chief was sent on his final journey to Valhalla in his burning longship.

Despite the biting cold, Shetlanders poured into the streets to hail the Jarl Squad, with schoolchildren dressed up as Vikings, too.

The celebrations continue until dawn on Wednesday, a public holiday for the 22,000 people on the Shetland Islands.

Guizers, as the torch-carrying townsmen are called, dress up in an array of eye-catching costumes -- frogs, penguins, garden gnomes, cowboys, Mexicans, even Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- perform routines practised since October.

The months-long "Up-Helly-Aa" preparations take place in secret. When the temperature drops below freezing as darkness falls at 4:00 pm, the Jarl Squad gather several nights a week to fine-tune the details.

"The suit I will wear has to be secret until the last minute, even my wife doesn't know what it is," said Gary Jemieson, the fifth generation boss of a Shetland knitwear business.

Jarl Squad member Ivor Cluness, a robust painter and decorator, donned his costume at dawn. The dark red "kertle" (tunic) of Shetland wool, chainmail overalls and a fleece cape took the whole year to create.

His aluminium helmet, decorated with dragons, comes down to his shoulders. His axe is clad with Scandinavian motifs and his shield is ringed with metal and has a handle made from a reindeer antler.

A man prepares for the Jarl squad it as if for marriage. It has cost 43-year-old father-of-four Cluness 1,400 pounds (2,050 euros, 2,500 dollars) in membership fees.

Like all the Jarl squad, whether engineers, office workers or dignitaries, Cluness has gone unshaven since November.

The squad plans the festival meticulously. A team has worked flat out to get the longship looking shipshape. The boat measures 40 feet (12 metres) long and is decorated with black and white shields along the sides and a red and silver dragon figurehead on the prow.

"I will be Guizer Jarl in 2014. I have already set up my squad", Cluness said.

The chosen men have already started saving up for the big day. They each make 70 payments of 20 pounds to reach the 1,400-pound total.

The bearded Graham Nicolson, 41, a civil servant who will assume the role next year, explained: "You can be Jarl only once in a lifetime."

"There are only one of them a year, a hundred per century. You have to be elected on the committee, then you have to serve for 16 years before you can become Guizer Jarl," he told AFP.

"It's a great honour, and it's a lifetime commitment.

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