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Jarl paints the town red . . .

From The Shetland Times, 30th January, 1998


By Annelise Yard

YOU HEAR many a tale of the so-called Up-Helly-A' babies - and here was living, breathing proof in the shape of the 1998 Guizer Jarl Colin Summers.

Resplendent in a red velvet kirtle, reindeer skin cloak and boots, an obviously nervous Jarl caused much laughter among the assembled VIP guests in the town hall as he explained this year was the first year since 1960 that his father Charlie had been out in a squad.

Incidentally, he added, that was the year he himself was born on 16th October (yes, that is about nine months), and therefore tribute should be paid to "hardy vikings" everywhere!

It's not often you feel sorry for a big hairy bloke, particularly when aforementioned bloke is brandishing a large axe, but the Jarl certainly courted my sympathy. The poor lad was that nervous.

At the tender age of 37, Colin Summers was determined to make the most of his long-awaited big day - if only he could just get that speech over and done with.

As his three sons, Martin, Patrick and Ritchie sat in front of the table which accommodated both himself and SIC Convener Lewis Smith together with Shetland's Lord Lieutenant, John Scott, the Jarl told how he had been dreading making his town hall speech.

"Of all the speeches I have made over the years this is the one which has worried me the most. I decided to ask the former jarls for advice . . . big mistake!"

He needn't have worried. Councillors, MPs, former jarls, and a whole host of local dignatories hung on his every word, laughing at the funny bits and applauding when praise was due.

After all, here was a man who had his very own, specially composed theme tune - Jarl Summers Time - played during the reception, certainly a sure-fire way of boosting anyone's self-esteem.

With his 57-strong squad dressed in dark blue velvet kirtles, with reindeer skin boots and cloaks, together with brass breast plates, helmets, axes and swords, the Jarl had chosen to represent Thorbjorn of Wast Burrafirt - mainly because of his own family connections with the West Side.

Renowned for his sense of humour and love of practical jokes, Thorbjorn owned property in Aith, West Burrafirth and Papa Stour. His big mistake was playing a trick on Jarl Hakon Paulson's henchman Bjarni.

Heading out to Bousta in Sandness with Bjarni and a group of men, Thorbjorn appeared to slide over the edge of a cliff with a wild yell, having in fact concealed himself in a narrow cave which was concealed from above.

At the same time he flung his cloak into the sea followed by the contents of a bucket of sheep's blood before creeping out of his hiding place, approaching Bjarni from behind and giving the man such a fright he fell down dead of shock.

Jarl Hakon was not best pleased having been told many a twisted tale by Bjarni's own men and decided Thorbjorn should be executed. He was burned in his stofa in West Burrafirth, the site of which is marked with a large stone to this day.

Jarl Thorbjorn and his squad received an equally warm reception in the town hall, being played in to the sounds of the Up-Helly-A' Song - although they lived to tell the tale!

As SIC convener Lewis Smith pointed out, the squad's costumes certainly did them proud, although they may not have gone down quite so well in Wast Burrafirt 900 years ago.

Canon Smith invited assembled guests to drink a toast to the Jarl, his squad and Lerwick's friendship town in Norway, Måløy, before everyone was given a short break to catch their breath and congratulate Jarl Thorbjorn.

Still looking nervous at the prospect of what lay ahead in the next 24 hours, Jarl Thorbjorn explained so far, so good, he was having a great time which had started with a bottle of beer for breakfast.

From there he had joined ranks with his squad before parading along Holmsgarth Road to the Toll Clock Shopping Centre, the venue for an exhibition and Up-Helly-A' craft fair over the weekend.

The "official" first tipple of the day was had at Lerwick's Royal British Legion where the squad collected the galley before parading down to Alexandra Wharf at around 10am, then roaring their way into the town hall just after 10.30am.

It was to be the start of a very busy day for the Jarl and his squad. Once the formalities of the town hall reception were finished, his troup headed off in the direction of Sound Primary School to visit pupils and teachers before tucking into a hearty lunch.

With full stomachs, the next port of call was Bell's Brae Primary School, followed by whistle-stop tours of Montfield and Gilbert Bain hospitals and Lerwick's two eventide homes, Viewforth and Edward Thomason House.

Then with time just to quaff a few more pints the squad would be off to take part in the torchlit procession before downing some more bevvies at 11 halls throughout Lerwick.

But before all that, Jarl Thorbjorn was obviously doing everything right as the oldest surviving former jarl Gilbert Halcrow, now 93, was enthralled by the proceedings during the reception.

"It was never so elaborate as this in my day. We could never match their costumes, we didn't have the money for one thing," Mr Halcrow explained.

He portrayed Erik the Red in 1939, and since his year as Guizer Jarl has not missed an Up-Helly-A' to date.

However, it was the first time Michael Irvine and his seven-year-old son Robbie had formed part of the Jarl's squad, having flown to Shetland especially for the event from Toronto.

Shetland-born Michael moved to Canada in 1985 after marrying his Canadian wife Fiona. Both his wife and their daughter Michelle (11) accompanied Michael and Robbie for their moment of glory - both as members of the Jarl's squad and to claim the title of furthest travelled squad members.

But no sooner had the trays of sandwiches been emptied and a few more drams downed to keep out the wintry chills then it was time for the Jarl and his squad to continue on their way but not before the traditional rendition of The Norseman's Home.

And just to prove they didn't take themselves too seriously, the squad launched into their own song There May Be Trouble Ahead, before heading off to face the music and do a wee bit of dancing into the night.


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