Up Helly Aa Viking festival squads open to women for first time

·3-min read

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.

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.

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.

Up Helly Aa Viking festival
The festival takes place in January (Andrew Milligan/PA)

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 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.”

Up Helly Aa for Aa, which has campaigned for equal opportunity for all in the festival, welcomed the decision.

A spokesperson said: “This is absolutely wonderful news and something that members of our community have been asking for over a long period of time.

“We are more than delighted that the Up Helly Aa Committee have listened to folk who want the festival to be inclusive. This is a great day for our inclusive Shetland community.

“We look forward to hearing more details and look forward to seeing an inclusive jarl squad lead the procession in future processions.”

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.

He said: “We run a large and popular fire festival and have unfortunately had to turn down applications from folk wanting to start new squads, or looking to increase maximum numbers within squads, over the past few years.

“That said, there is always a turnover of guizers within squads from year to year, and by giving squads the freedom to choose we are actively allowing change to happen.”

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.

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

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