Photographers' Blog

Modern day vikings

January 31, 2013

Shetland Islands, Scotland

By David Moir

Vikings, they’re not what they used to be.

No more do we see horn helmeted warriors pillaging and plundering everything in sight, striking fear into villagers with the stories of their wickedness. No, now they sing and dance when visiting community centers, hospitals and shopping centers. Basically cheering everyone up who sing along and join in the fun on a cold wet Tuesday in January.

I have just returned from covering the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, Britain’s most northerly set of islands. More than 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland and closer to Bergen in Norway than London.

Shetland prides itself on its Norse heritage and its Vikings, especially for Up Helly Aa with the Guizer Jarl (the Chief Guizer), and leader of the Jarl Squad (there are another 45 squads) who are the Vikings for this special day designing and making their suits, shields and weapons for the occasion two years in advance.

On the morning of Up Helly Aa, myself and two other photographer colleagues managed to find out where the Jarl Squad would be starting their day, a local community center in the heart of Lerwick.
We were allowed in to photograph them. I thought would they be huddled round drinking beer and telling stories of their pillaging escapades like their Viking forefathers.

Actually no they weren’t, they were gathered in the centre drinking hot tea and coffee, eating a bacon roll, reading this year’s program of events and shining up the metal on their suits and shields. This year’s Guizer Jarl, local fisherman Stevie Grant, even had his helmet given a last minute polish before he stepped outside to lead his band of warriors through the day’s activities.

At night, it was the torch-lit procession and the burning of the longboat in one of the local parks. The weather in January in Shetland is, shall we say changeable, at best.

In the late morning it was lovely blue sky and periods of sunshine, but for the torch-lit procession, it was heavy cold rain driving straight in your face and straight down your lens, accompanied by a force 10 gale (later that night 90mph winds were recorded!). Everything was soaking wet; me, my cameras (one packed it in due to the water) and lenses.

At 7.30pm on the dot, when all the Vikings were lined up in the street and ready to go, flares were lit and the petrol dipped torches were lit. Off we went.

Rule number 1, don’t get in the way of Shetland Vikings carrying lit torches. Get as close as you can, try and get the picture and move on. Many years ago I saw a photographer basically be lifted up and put over a barrier in with the public – game over for him.

After walking a zig zag of the streets the procession eventually ended up in the public park where the longboat was placed.

You’re not allowed into the park unless you have a special pass, and not many are given out nowadays. It’s local media only so you have to find a wall to stand on to see over the crowds.

After the usual “three cheers” hundreds of lit torches are thrown into the galley, and “whoosh” up it goes. It doesn’t take long until all you see is the dragon head engulfed with silhouettes of the helmeted warriors standing in front of the flames.

With that the Vikings and their helpers, locals and tourists head off into the night to start drinking and partying hard till the early morning in the local halls, pubs and hotels.

Me, I squelched back to my hotel to file my pictures and dry out my equipment and clothes – can’t wait to go back again.

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