Shetland's Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival squads open to women for first time

Women will be able to take part in squads at the main Up Helly Aa fire festival in Shetland for the first time next year, organisers have announced.

By Lucinda Cameron
Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 12:01 pm

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa Committee decided to relax the long-standing custom of only allowing males to take part in the procession after members discussed how to take the event forward following a two-year absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event, which attracts visitors from around the globe, sees people dressed as Vikings march through the streets of Lerwick to recreate its ancient Viking past, in a tradition dating back to the 19th century.

The walk is led by the Guizer Jarl, or chief guizer, and culminates in a torch-lit procession and a replica longboat being set alight.

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Men and boys join their jarl squad at Up Helly Aa - but now women can join the celebration of Shetland's Viking past PIC: TSPL.

The committee said Up Helly Aa guizers will be able to manage their squads in keeping with the spirit of the fire festival, with no gender restrictions, for next year’s event.

The South Mainland Up Helly Aa festival appointed its first ever female jarl in 2015 and the decision on the Lerwick event comes after people campaigned for women to be allowed to take part.

Lerwick Up Helly Aa Committee secretary Robert Geddes said: “We felt that it was time to give squads a choice over their guizers, including allowing female participation.

“Everybody is looking forward to the return of Up Helly Aa after an unprecedented two-year break because of Covid.

The replica Viking longship before it is set ablaze Picture: PA

“The decision means the festival in Lerwick on Tuesday January 31 2023 will have a different dimension to it, but we have no doubt that its essence and spirit will remain the same.”

Mr Geddes said the change would be evolutionary and within squads at this stage given that the festival is already at full capacity with 47 squads.

The other criteria for participation – that guizers must be aged 16 or older and have lived in Shetland continuously for five years – will remain the same.

Shetland and neighbouring Orkney were ruled by the Norse for about 500 years until they became part of Scotland in 1468.

Up Helly AA is a stunning event with a fiery finale in Lerwick

The festival stems from the 1870s when a group of young local men wanted to put new ideas into Shetland’s Christmas celebrations.