We step oot o the ker intae a frigid sooth-easterly Shetland night wind. It chills us tae the core o wur bones as we mak wur wey tae the centre o Lerwick.
The toon is thrang wae folk headan purposefully here and there, many o them in t-shirts, clutchan cowld cans o lager, laughan. Doon a lane we see a drum fill o heavy torches ready tae be lit. Fae the back o a larry comes the throb o African drumming. It’s carnival time, the last Tuesday in January, an time fur Up Helly Aa.
We find a space tae stand at Cock Too Brae, the best vantage point for the parade, and the streetlights cut oot. A roar erupts fae the mirk as the torches are lit. An orange lowe begins tae fill the street, sparks and reek risin on the wind. We feel as much as hear the thunderous noise o the maroon gaan off; a thrillan adrenaline keik. There’s anither roar, and the whole unholy procession lurches intae motion.
The Jarl Squad are magnificent. Resplendent in a deep reid wae silver and leather finishes, and sheepskin cloaks. The helmet details in pewter are intricate and exquisite. The axes gleam. Ivrywhar they go, they sing, joyously: From down the distant centuries Up Helly Aa has come!
The Guiser Jarl is magnificent. A stocky, bearded, splendid Sheltie, commandan his squad wae a dignified eye and a stern voice. His helmet is winged wae corbie feathers, and his mantle o corbie feathers shines iridescent purple in the torchlight.
The galley is magnificent. Crafted by the master boatbuilders o Shetland, an born tae die in the flames. A corbie in the riggeen an a bliddy hand at the masthead. The dragon prow haes a freendly face, and a fleecy beard. Sheilds range along the gunwhales. The paintwork is immaculate. Sheu is an offering o pure beauty.
A thoosand torches light up Lerwick in reid an orange, banishan the midwinter mirk and cauld. The bairns tak their gloves off and haad their hands up tae the warmth. Ivrywhar is the hot, sweet guff o kerosene. I love dat smell! says a wife ahint me. We are showered in a hail o sparks kerried on the wind. (Wur claes will guff o kerosene fur days eftir.)
Some o the guisers are tryan tae wipe the sparks oot o their eyes. We get a flavour o the entertainment tae follow later as they file past in fancy dress. Policemen, crofters, Elvises, teddy bears, oil workers, Smurfs, Michael Jacksons, owld weemin, spies. Aal wae torches. Aal singan. A thoosand torches!
Eventually, they aal converge in the centre o the toon, whaur they begin tae wheel, wae the sun, roond the galley. A burnin ring o fire, a maelstrom, a galaxy o flame. An then, Three cheers fur da galley makars! Three cheers fur da Jarl Squad! Three cheers fur da Guiser Jarl! The torches are flung aboard, an the galley is ablaze an burnan tae the grund.
* * *
In the grey morneen eftir, be drive tae the faer north west – through Tingwall, Voe, Brae, and on tae Northmavine, whar the sculpted rock maks uncan shapes on the western horizons; holms, stacks, skerries in impossible forms, indescribable in their weirdness. The Dore Holm I find the most fascinating, like a black Precambrian baest stannan in the sea, neck dipped doon tae mak a perfect hole through the rock. Whitemaas flit through the void. If ye gaed through that gap in a peedie boat, wid ye be the same buddy when ye cam oot the ither side?
January 31st, 2012