Galley head graphicGalley head graphic

Finishing touch to big day

From The Shetland Times, 30th January, 1998

By Dawn Thompson

YOU could smell fire before you could see any flames before the procession on Tuesday night.

At the war memorial, the Lower Hillhead and Town Hall brae, hundreds of noses were cast aloft, followed by hundreds of eyes, looking for the source of the smell.

We had to wait, but not for long. Those watching the clock of the Town Hall as it struck 7.30 saw its white dyed blood red as the flares were fired up to light the torches and smoke billowed up into the clear sky, blotting out the stars.

People had started to gather more than an hour before to be sure of getting a ring-side seat and corresponding good view. By 6.30 there were little knots of people gathering on the corners of the King George V playing field and the TV cameras had booked their placed on the war memorial opposite the Town Hall. Above it, the raven banner was unfurled by the breeze.

As the time drew nearer, little groups of guizers could be seen coming towards Prince Alfred Street. At the first of these, a child nearby shouted: "Look, there's a man in a costume!" Many more of those were to follow.

Through windows people could be seen bagging their own seats to the accompaniment of an expectant hum from those lining the streets. Earlier on, before the junior procession through the streets, the Jarl's Squad had gathered along the Town Hall Brae and gave onlookers a rendition of several songs, the first being There May Be Trouble Ahead.

Indeed, when the lights went out right in the middle of what looked like a relatively complicated turning movement along the Lower Hillhead by the pipe band, trouble was what some of those watching may have feared.

But, screwing up your eyes in the new darkness and listening closely, you could see the musicians turning and hear them keeping perfect time. There seemed to be no unscheduled impacts. Very impressive indeed.

The first movements of the procession were blocked by the TV cameras. But a smaller person, obviously peeking through the legs of the crowd shouted "Here they come," and through the heads you could see the procession advance, the heat rippling into a pool of orange haze right away into the distance.

As they passed the crowd was quite quiet, enough to hear the Jarl's Squad in fine voice, their vocal chords no doubt warmed up by the earlier practice. Jarl Thorbjorn of Wast Burrafirt stood aloft in his galley Lori Tafgen, the blade of his axe gleaming in the torchlight.

As the stream of fire passed, and the guizers passed in front of the war memorial, through a gap in the houses you could see the head of the galley going along St Olaf Street, the Jarl still standing proudly in the midst of the light and smoke.

Among those following behind was a squad of Teletubbies which caused much excitement among the younger - and perhaps even some of the older - watchers in the crowd.

The last guizer passed, and the crowd began to talk again. Many people filed down behind the procession as it snaked along St Olaf Street and down through Prince Alfred Street, the torches biting easily into the cold night air.

Easy as it is to get blasé about the procession when you're used to it, it is an extremely spectacular show - particularly when you get the turning movement along King Harald Street with the galley ensconced in a stream of flames.

Then, the procession passed along Harbour Street and the north part of St Olaf Street before doubling along Town Hall brae and into the park. The galley was taken in and positioned in the middle of the park.

The guizers circled round and round, and as more and more piled into the park, you kept looking to where the torches were coming from and thinking: "Surely there can't be more?" But they kept coming and coming.

Around the playing field, faces were illuminated in the light of the torches like rows of ghosts. By now the wind seemed to have calmed and the flag on the Town Hall mast had fallen down fluttering occasionally. The torches had turned into a carousel of fire around the Jarl and his galley.

A couple of people appeared on the tower of the Town Hall. The view must have been brilliant from up there. By 8.10pm everyone was in the park and the heat from the mass of torches and the sparks, like a shower of hot snow were blown into the sky, the heat turning all behind it into a shimmering mass.

At almost 8.15 a maroon was fired and the guizers shouted three cheers - for the galley builders and torch makers, for Up-Helly-A' and for the Jarl himself.

They started throwing at 8.15pm. The mast ropes were the first to go, springing up from where they were anchored as the torches burnt them through. The mast itself was hanging down very quickly, as flames curled along it, and the galley head was smoking. A ferocious crackling and smoking followed as the flames ate through her, up the back of the head and along the crest of the tail.

As the squads drifted away after the final song, the galley burned on, her sides eaten away, leaving what looked like glowing ribs, her tail creaking sideways just before half past eight. A small crowd stood and warmed their frozen fingers in the burst of heat generated as the head fell backwards and the galley crumbled in on herself just a few minutes later.

© All text copyright, The Shetland Times Ltd, 1997.
Return to Up-Helly-Aa main page