Viking festival lifts 150-year ban on women left out of warrior ‘squads’

·3-min read
Women will be permitted to take part in the procession at Up Helly Aa for the first time in 150 years - Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Women will be permitted to take part in the procession at Up Helly Aa for the first time in 150 years - Jane Barlow/PA Wire

It is an issue that has divided tight-knit communities in Shetland for decades.

But for the first time, women will be permitted to take part in a Viking-inspired procession at Europe’s largest fire festival.

The organisers of Up Helly Aa have announced that a long-standing ban on female participation will be lifted next year, when the event returns in January following a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19.

The festival attracts visitors from across the world, with “squads” of people dressed as Vikings marching 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.

Liam Summers was the guizer jarl for the 2020 event - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Liam Summers was the guizer jarl for the 2020 event - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Women had previously been restricted to the role of “hostesses”, organising parties that follow the festivities, despite female warriors having a prominent role in Norse mythology.

Organisers have announced that, for the first time, there will be no gender restrictions on marchers, despite some islanders calling for the ban to be maintained on the grounds of tradition.

The 'squads' marching through the streets have traditionally always been men, but that will change from next year - Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
The 'squads' marching through the streets have traditionally always been men, but that will change from next year - Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

“We’re delighted,” said Zara Pennington, a member of the Reclaim the Raven feminist group that campaigned for the change. “It’s going to do so much for inclusion.

“The first serious campaigns to change this happened in the 1980s, but women have been trying to get in ever since they were originally excluded, so this is a multi-generational issue.

“Women have previously been expected to help with the catering, making costumes, so it was all based on stereotypes. We’ve heard a lot from visitors over the years who have been shocked at the rules.

“Some people will obviously be reluctant but I think most people on the island will be accepting. It’s a great thing for the community and it’s obvious that its time has come.”

The last time Up Helly Aa took place, in January 2020, Reclaim the Raven erected a banner depicting a female Viking warrior on horseback which read: “Have you forgotten those that bore you? Act lest the gods should intervene!”

Even applications for girls to take part in a junior procession were turned down. In 2019, Shetland Council ruled their exclusion was not a breach of equalities laws.

However, Robert Geddes, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa Committee secretary, said there had been a change of heart following the break due to the pandemic.

“We felt that it was time to give squads a choice over their guizers, including allowing female participation,” he said.

"The decision means the festival in Lerwick will have a different dimension to it, but we have no doubt that its essence and spirit will remain the same."

Up Helly Aa has a junior jarl squad, but anyone taking part in the main procession must be at least 16 years old - Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Up Helly Aa has a junior jarl squad, but anyone taking part in the main procession must be at least 16 years old - Jane Barlow/PA Wire

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

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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