Up Helly Aa Viking Festival squad opened to women for the first time

Up Helly Aa Viking Festival squad opened to women for the first time

Women can attend the Up Helly Aa festival next year (Andrew Milligan/PA) (PA Archive)

Women can attend the Up Helly Aa festival next year (Andrew Milligan/PA) (PA Archive)

Organizers have announced that next year, for the first time, women will be able to participate in squads at the main fire festival, Up Helly Aa, in Shetland.

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee decided to relax the long-standing custom of allowing only men to take part in the procession after members discussed how the event could continue after a two-year absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event, which attracts visitors from around the world, sees people dressed as Vikings parading through the streets of Lerwick to recreate the ancient Viking past, in a tradition that dates back to the 19th century.

The walk is led by the Guizer Jarl or Chief Guizer and culminates with a torchlight procession and the lighting of a replica longboat.

The committee said Up Helly Aa’s guizers will be able to manage their squads for next year’s event with no gender restrictions, in keeping with the spirit of the fire festival.

The festival takes place in January (Andrew Milligan/PA) (PA Archive)

The festival takes place in January (Andrew Milligan/PA) (PA Archive)

The South Mainland Up Helly Aa Festival appointed its first-ever female Jarl in 2015 and the decision to host the Lerwick event comes after people campaigned for women to be allowed to participate.

Lerwick Up Helly Aa Committee Secretary Robert Geddes said: “We felt it was time to give teams choice over their Guizers, including allowing women.

“Everyone is looking forward to the return of Up Helly Aa after an unprecedented two-year hiatus due to Covid.

“The decision means that the festival in Lerwick on Tuesday 31 January 2023 will have a different dimension, but we have no doubt that its essence and spirit will remain the same.”

This is a great day for our inclusive Shetland community

Up Helly Aa for aa

Up Helly Aa for Aa, which campaigned for equal opportunities for all at the festival, welcomed the decision.

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

“We are beyond pleased that the Up Helly Aa Committee has listened to people who want the festival to be inclusive. This is a great day for our inclusive Shetland community.

“We look forward to hearing more details and look forward to seeing an inclusive Jarl force leading the procession at future processions.”

Mr Geddes said the change is evolutionary and within the squads at this stage as the festival is already at full capacity with 47 squads.

He said: “We run a large and popular fire festival and for the past few years we have unfortunately had to turn down applications from people wanting to start new squads or increase the maximum number within squads.

“Nevertheless, there is a rotation of Guizers within squads from year to year, and by giving squads the freedom to choose, we actively allow for change.”

The other eligibility criteria – Guizer must be at least 16 years old and have lived in Shetland for five consecutive years – remain the same.

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

The festival dates back to the 1870s when a group of young local men wanted to bring new ideas to Shetland’s Christmas celebrations.

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