Shetland set for Up Helly Aa festival with women in squads for first time

The event is traditionally held on the last Tuesday in January.
The event is traditionally held on the last Tuesday in January.

Thousands of people are gathering for the main Up Helly Aa fire festival in Shetland, with women set to take part in the squads for the first time.

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa Committee last year decided to relax the long-standing custom of only allowing males to take part in the procession after members discussed how to take the event forward following a two-year absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event, which attracts visitors from around the globe, sees people dressed as Vikings march through the streets of Lerwick to recreate its ancient Viking past, in a tradition dating back to the 19th century.

Up Helly Aa festival
The Jarl squad march through Lerwick during the Up Helly Aa festival (Jane Barlow/PA)

The South Mainland Up Helly Aa festival appointed its first ever female jarl in 2015 and the decision on the Lerwick event came after people campaigned for women to be allowed to take part.

Up Helly Aa for Aa, which has campaigned for equal opportunity for all in the festival, welcomed the decision last year to allow women to take part in the Lerwick squads.

A spokesperson said: “This is absolutely wonderful news and something that members of our community have been asking for over a long period of time.

“We are more than delighted that the Up Helly Aa Committee have listened to folk who want the festival to be inclusive.”

Up Helly Aa festival
Neil Moncrieff has the honour of being the Guizer Jarl this year (Jane Barlow/PA)

This year there are no women in the main Jarl squad which leads the procession, however, women are taking part in other fancy dress squads involved in the event.

Festival organisers said it is not necessarily a surprise that there are no female participants in the 2023 Jarl Squad as the squad was formed in 2021, before the change lifting gender restrictions was announced in June 2022.

The Up Helly Aa Committee said: “It is expected that females participating in the Jarl Squad will evolve in the coming years but we’ll see females participating in some of the other 46 squads from the 2023 festival.”

Shetland and neighbouring Orkney were ruled by the Norse for about 500 years until they became part of Scotland in 1468.

The festival stems from the 1870s when a group of young local men wanted to put new ideas into Shetland’s Christmas celebrations.