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Men in tights and frilly undies do the rounds on viking fun day

From The Shetland Times, 30th January, 1998


By John Robertson

ANOTHER Up-Helly-A' indeed and what's this - folk claiming the bubble has burst and the big one was tumbling headlong down the same slippery slope which claimed that other big Lerwick tradition, the midsummer carnival.

Rumour wafting about town had it that several halls were on the brink of calling it a day after Tuesday, squad recruitment was in crisis and defiant women were telling their menfolk that if they wanted to prance about like peerie boys they could jolly well do it on their own and sod the bannocks.

Neither these omens or the morning weather boded well and I for one was dreading having to write the ultimate horror story of poor Jarl Thorbjorn being cooked to a cinder in his galley in some grotesque echo of the fate which befell his namesake in Viking days.

But soon, with the night sky aglow, it was clear that this was to be a perfect Summers night after all and it was off to the halls to banish any remaining negative baggage.

Climbing the winding Lerwick lanes to an as yet undecided venue all the signs were of a rumbustious night already in progress. The tranquil night air was breached by distant roars from faraway trucks filled rampant men. Then came the dull thud of feet on floorboards and the whoops and heuchs of an eightsome at full tilt. But hey this merriment was filtering from the window of the Ebenezer Church Hall in Navy Lane - not to my knowledge a venue noted as a hotbed of pagan ritual.

Checked the list of halls as I reached the door, realised this must be some fringe event, and continued on my merry way, pausing only to admire the blood red raven banner hanging limply atop the Town Hall.

It was first stop Central School, as traditionalists still insist on calling it more than quarter of a century out of date. Blagging my way through the door required a bit of gentle persuasion on host Harry Eunson who, with his wife Mary, has apparently been helping run the venue more or less since the war. Dedication or what?

Inside there was a welcoming atmosphere as usual. Musicians Margaret Couper, Alan Scollay and friends were giving it laldie for the dancers and an assortment of Biggles types from squad seven, B.A. Flags Out, who boasted a large number of, shall we say, veteran guizers.

Each year it takes a few acts to pass through before you get used to seeing normally sensible, important male types dressed in women's clothing. But once you've made that leap of perception you're prepared for almost anything. Mind you my first "tranny" encounter this year, chief librarian John Hunter, did not the daintiest of ladies make in his role as a dancer with the Carnival's Ower.

Seven squads had already been and gone by this time, among them Auld Rock(ers) who transformed from the Priests of Unst into rock 'n' rollers in tribute to the powers of Shetland's first real ale. Where do you get a pint of this elusive brew?

When In Rome were centurions who danced to the English Agadoo, a Scottish sword dance and a Shetland strip the willow during their tour of Britain.

Judged best so far by some was Da Cross Folk which featured certain town shopkeepers prancing about with hanging baskets, protesting about the infamous flagstone and sewerage works.

Da aroma at da Market Cross

Is just beyond all wirds

Wi broken drains and sewer pipes

An antrin peerie turds

Least politically correct act of the year must have been (Q)We're In The Army Now which involved gay soldiers camping it up and revealing frilly underwear. Yes, there is definitely the raw material in Up-Helly-A' for a good thesis by some sex psychologist.

Audiences burst into spontaneous applause during the act by Grannies from Y(H)ell when Santa dished out the 200 Christmas bonuses recently robbed by the SIC. Beastly councillors Groat, Blub and Canon Smith whipped the money off them before being lynched. Disguised as the canon was none other than councillor Tavish Scott. Did he come up with the catchphrase: "Fire the canon, smote the groat and gub the blub"?

Retreating for a small refreshment I conducted some audience research among first-timers. What did they think of the squads? "Some are really bullshit. But I really love the dances. You can't say no." Or the deeply intriguing "I like entertaining men but it's dodgy," and "It's a big comedy and everybody understands that - they're here to have a laugh."

The quality of suits this year seemed particularly good with many very smart lookers. So I was somewhat taken aback when reliably informed that they were "nearly all from Jackie's Novelties", that face-saving outfit in Yorkshire which seems able to turn out almost anything.

If folk do have less time and inclination to slave over the papier-maché these days, it should at least give them more time to come up with some clever little act with which to wow the halls. Not really - at least not in the majority of cases. The trusty old formula still prevails: 20 disorientated flumpy blobs bumble in the door, prance/dance about in a circular rammy before the prop does whatever its party piece is this year, and, cue sharp exit . . .

The same criticisms hold true year after year and right enough, after a few hours the attention span of many folk in the halls can be sorely tested. Squads who go to the bother of cooking up an original approach to the floor show tend to reap most praise.

Many guizers would admit that - even behind those masks - it's pretty embarrassing when you know your act sucks. "We had wir first practice at da Clickimin," revealed one young man and no doubt his squad was not alone.

Said one woman watching a particularly bizarre floorshow:

"Imagine what they're going to be like at five in the morning."

"Look at them now," quipped her friend.

Yet, does it really matter that much? Nobody's auditioning for Broadway and the main purpose of going around the halls is to mix and have a hooley and there's nothing much hindering the squads in that department.

Ear Tyson had an entertaining act. They built a boxing ring into which a giant Tyson (Donald Hay) and Big Ears fell into combat under the watchful eye of referee JFK. They had obviously been practising because the acting was good, although I suspect some real punches were probably landed by the end of the night when the old hand-to-eye co-ordination had gone west.

Smelliest squad of the night was Impulse, filling every hall with the nasty fumes of cheap perfume and leaving a few with a rash or two the next morning. They had real Magnie-type coonty roadmen working behind screens to install the imfamous town bollards and getting rather excited by passing young chicks. Never have so many small erections been seen in public at one time. Winnie Ewing MEP seemed perplexed.

But like every smart politician she was game for the photo opportunities and was last seen basking in the limelight with big Jim Manson from the Jarl's squad.

It must be said that the Viking costumes were exceptional this year and Jackies' Novelties certainly didn't make much out of them. It wasn't difficult to see where each man's 1000 had gone. The dark blue velvet kirtles with their intricate brass plating was exquisite and the sophisticated styling of the shields looked magnificent. Don't know how many ravens were dispatched to make the helmet wings but, apparently one doesn't go into these things too deeply.

Beard of the year has to go to Ewan Balfour of Brae who was so well endowed by Christmas time it saved him the bother of buying a tree to hang the fairy lights on. Honest!

A good sign that the lad Summers and his boys weren't taking it all too seriously in the halls was their rendering of Irving Berlin's "There may be trouble ahead . . ." after the formalities of the Up-Helly-A' Song.

Best furry suits might go to the Clickimin Broth (Green Pee Soup) squad, lurid green affairs which were meant to conjure up the image of cuddly algae. Shame about the act. What were all those guys doing huddled together in the middle of the floor for about 10 minutes? Did anyone fathom the Does Ants Bud squad either?. Someone did say it was inspired by a TV advert but whatever "good suits boys."

There's an old squad saying for when ideas for a suit are proving thin on the ground: "Maybe it's our turn to be Mexicans this year?" Two squads had that sinking feeling this year by the looks of it. There also seemed to be a disturbing amount of Drew Ratter-wannabes doing the rounds too.

Onto the Town Hall and Jumping Jack Flash, a gang of suavely suited clowns who cut quite a dash. Shame about the big bang which was supposed to accompany the dramatic appearance of Jack-in-the-box. More of a pffffissss . . .

Punters up from Glasgow and Edinburgh at their first fire festival raved about their night as they scooped surreptitiously from their bottles of Cranberry Hooch and wrapped cigarette papers around those little holes in Silk Cut fags in order to obtain the maximum oomph. Strange breed.

The TA Hall is always worth a look, once you squeeze in the narrow door. When a couple of dozen furry suits are queueing for their turn it is a pretty surreal sensation pushing past these oversized blobs who keep banging into each other and haven't got a clue what's going on around them. This sensory deprivation becomes increasingly apparent among the guizers as the night wears on.

Felt like giving Tony Blair a boot up the backside but it was only a very sober (really) Patrick Robertson from Unst in his Where is Humphrey (c)at.

The Bressay ferry boys got a bit of a ribbing from a rather funny squad, Ferry Sober, who had the best false-face of the night an incredibly rough-looking old Magnie with a penis of a nose. The ferrymen were "bagged" by Gorgeous George who then had to call the Britannia crew off the dole to take charge of the Leirna. Will they dare take this act across to the Bressay Up-Helly-A'?

It was time to take an early bath, since the Spiced Rum had run dry. But not before I stumbled upon a rather intriguing phenomenon. By the end of the night there were a few among the womenfolk complaining of sore wrists. Scientists discounted a theory that this was down to there being too many wxxxxxx going around the halls, blaming it instead on an excess of the more acceptable practice of dancing. It was all good clean fun wasn't it?


© All text copyright, The Shetland Times Ltd, 1997.
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