NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival gender row heats up

Up Helly Aa Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Guizers set fire to a replica Viking long ship during the festival

The campaign to allow women into Viking squads for Lerwick's famous Up Helly Aa fire festival has stepped up a gear.

Female volunteers are restricted to taking part as hostesses, which involves organising the all-night parties that take place in community halls across the Shetland town.

A protest placard from a group wanting change was placed at Lerwick's Market Cross hours before the festival finale.

However it was later removed by unidentified people in a van.

It is five years since the smaller South Mainland Up Helly Aa appointed its first female Guizer Jarl.

However, the community is still divided on whether women should be allowed to take part in the main procession at Lerwick Up Helly Aa in Shetland.

Image caption Lesley Simpson was the first female Guizer Jarl in 2015, at the South Mainland Up Helly Aa

The newly-formed protest group Reclaim the Raven's proclamation on Tuesday morning asked: "Have you forgotten those that bore you?".

The group said on its Facebook page: "No-one wishes to see Up Helly Aa become better known for the exclusion of women and girls than for being the biggest and best fire festival in Europe."

Zara Pennington, from Reclaim the Raven, said the men-only march was "completely unacceptable" in modern Scotland.

"I think there should be a gradual move to include women at an appropriate pace that the festival can cope with," she said.

Image copyright Reclaim the Raven
Image caption The alternative proclamation asked: "Have you forgotten those that bore you?"

However, one Up Helly Aa hostess, Emma Williamson, said women were "not on the sidelines at all".

She told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland: "After the last torch goes in that galley, the women are very much in charge of Up Helly Aa. It's our night."

She said of calls for woman to be able to march in the squads: "There's an argument from a very small group of people who really do not understand what Up Helly Aa is all about, and what it means to the people of Lerwick."

This year's chief Viking, Liam Summers, said at the end of his opening town hall civic reception speech that he would quote predecessor McGowan Scott from 1913.

Mr Summers said: "Up Helly Aa at that time has been under a bit of moral scrutiny - which sounds familiar.

Image copyright PA

"He (McGowan Scott) said 'We're celebrating Up Helly Aa this year in as splendid a style as ever - in spite of the efforts that have been made to throw cold water both on our torches and our bonfire.

"'This criticism is more heathenish than the festival. It is an attempt to interfere with innocent hearts' enjoyment. Up Helly Aa will be for downright, genuine and wholehearted enjoyment the greatest of them all'."

Up Helly Aa - the biggest fire festival in Europe - is held on the last Tuesday in January.

It remembers the Vikings who used to rule the Shetland islands 1,000 years ago.

Warriors parade through the streets by torchlight as visitors from across the world gather to watch the spectacle.

The day culminates with the dramatic burning of a replica Viking long ship.

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