London Indymedia

Letter from Lerwick

Paul O'Hanlon | 17.03.2015 22:12 | Culture | Free Spaces | History | London | World

As we enter the cut and thrust and ruthlessness of the coming election campaign perhaps it is useful to look at a gentler pace of life in a small community which is friendly, tolerant and welcoming.

Letter from Lerwick

Australia Day Monday January 26th 2015 saw me feeling the need for a short winter break. A visit to the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne was tempting but the £1,000 (AUD$1,940) return air fare was prohibitive. Where to go for some winter sunshine from a rather grey and chilly Edinburgh?

I decided on the world famous fire festival Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, Shetland. Lerwick is well to the north of Edinburgh and involves a twelve and a half hour ferry ride from Aberdeen which is itself 124 miles north of Scotland’s capital. Many think it must be bitterly cold up there at 60 degrees north which is the same latitude as St Petersburg, Russia or Anchorage, Alaska. However Lerwick enjoys a surprisingly mild oceanic climate with a high of eight degrees Celsius forecast for the big day on Tuesday January 27th – not at all bad for January while St Petersburg was expected to be minus 2 and Anchorage a really cold minus fourteen.

I was a little miffed at not getting an award in Tony Abbott’s honours list. The Australian PM had used the country's national day to announce a knighthood for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
I honestly don’t think Phil needs any more titles. The inhabitants of some villages on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu also worship Prince Philip as a god.

Well I expect we all have our idols – I’m a huge fan of Perth (WA) born actress Judy Davis for instance and my enthusiasm for her films and hugely varied acting skills does come close to worship. I’d love to meet her though I didn’t think she’d be on that night’s boat though of course you never know. You meet all manner of fascinating characters on the Northlink Ferries.

The bus journey from Edinburgh to Aberdeen had taken three hours via Dundee and was mostly in daylight though it was dark by the time of arrival in the `silver city`. I struggled to find a cash machine at Aberdeen’s Union Square shopping centre and was rather amazed at its location – it was inside the public toilets! The phrase to spend a penny sprang to mind.

The ferry ride is over 12 hours long and with Up Helly Aa being on I rather expected the boat to be `pack-ed oot` as the Shetlanders say meaning full up. However to my surprise the Hjaltland ferry that plies between Aberdeen and Lerwick was only about one quarter full with some 150 souls on board a ship designed to carry 600. The boat fare of £27 one way (AUD$52) compares very well with the horrendous £460 return air fare (AUD$892) from Edinburgh to Sumburgh, Shetland’s main airport.

There were cabins available but the best seat I could afford was a `sleeping pod` which is a first class reclining armchair. Derided by some I found it comfortable and the crossing was fairly smooth apart from a little rough water near Fair Isle which is half way between Orkney and Shetland.

Shetland is not merely one island but an archipelago of around 300 islands and small rocky outlets called skerries. Some sixteen of the islands are populated and the total inhabitants number around 20,000. The biggest island is called Mainland and this is where the two largest towns Lerwick and Scalloway are situated. The journey through the islands from south to north starting at the airport town of Sumburgh and ending at Baltasound in the far north is the best part of a hundred miles and a day’s drive involving two ferry rides through the islands of Mainland, Yell and Unst.

The Vikings arrived in the Shetland Islands in the early 8th and 9th centuries looking for land and for the next 600 years or so the Norsemen ruled both Orkney and Shetland. Surprisingly, although the Vikings had a reputation as fearsome warriors, they settled down and became farmers.

Orkney and Shetland were effectively Norwegian colonies. However Norway was weakened by the Black Plague coming increasingly under the control of Denmark. King Christian I of Denmark and Norway was in financial trouble, so in 1468, the impoverished Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, pawned the Orkney Isles to James III of Scotland in lieu of a royal dowry for 50,000 florins. The Shetlands were pawned for a further 8,000 florins. Though Denmark tried several times to buy back the Shetlands they remained under Scottish control. To this day however some 550 years after their transfer by pawn Shetlanders remain proud of their Scandinavian roots. Many words of the Shetland dialect are borrowed from the Norse invaders of yore and many street names have Viking titles like King Harald Street, St Olaf Street and Magnus Street.

Not being well versed in Norse, Norwegian or the Shetland dialect I added an Aussie dimension to my trip by bringing along a copy of John Pilger’s definitive book `Heroes` . The book which begins and ends in Australia has roving reporter John’s despatches from all over the globe in between.

I also took a DVD of the classic 1981 film `Winter of our Dreams` which is set in the working class Sydney suburbs of Woolloomooloo, Balmain and Kings Cross. Nominated for 7 AFI (Australian Film Institute) awards the star of the show is of course Judy, the glorious red head from Perth. While I did not have a drink that night on the boat the sight of a flame haired 26 year-old Judy Davis in her low cut pink top, little blue skirt and 5 denier sheer black pantyhose was rather intoxicating.

The film with its haunting melody of “Till time brings change” passed a couple of relaxing hours as the Hjaltland progressed through the relatively calm waters of the North Sea on a dark night on its way to the Northern Isles.
I was unable to access the Internet as while at sea the signal apparently has to go via a satellite making it harder to pick up – so I had to wait till the morning to get the latest tennis results from Oz.

The boat arrived in Lerwick harbour on time at 0730 on a dark Tuesday morning. The sun rises later here as we’re so far north and typing this at 0813 there was still a gloomy darkness outside. The Internet was back though and looking at the results from Melbourne that big Nick’s quarter final with Scotland’s Andy Murray was about to begin.

The Shetland sky was just beginning to lighten on what promised to be an interesting day.

The town was heaving with people from all over the world turning up for the Viking Festival. Antipodean accents were much in evidence at the tourist information office; in fact an Australian flag flies proudly over the town of Brae which is further north up the mainland of Shetland towards Sullom Voe oil terminal.

At lunchtime there came the disappointing news for Aussie tennis fans that Nick Kyrgios had lost his quarter final match with Scotland’s Andy Murray.

I had found the 210 mile boat journey from Aberdeen to Lerwick a little tiring and dozed off for a couple of hours in my comfortable room. The Up Helly Aa event is broadcast live on the Internet but it’s great to be there in person. I walked the mile or so to the town centre to see the guizers (guizer or guiser is short for `disguiser` meaning a street performer) led by the guizer yarl assembled by Lerwick’s town hall and after a startlingly loud firework exploded there was a lusty Viking roar and the torch lit procession started at 1930 on a dry and fairly mild January evening.

The sight, smell and incandescence of nearly a thousand burning torches along with the boisterous but good natured singing is quite an experience. On a cool damp evening the heat from the flaming sticks is pleasantly warming though you have to beware the many sparks and it’s advisable not wear your best suit. The blazing wooden torches seemed endless as the all-male performers (many dressed as women) made their way to the little park called King George Field where the wooden Viking Galley was ceremonially burned. Thousands gathered and scrambled up walls and stairways to get the best view of the highlight of the evening. The various squads formed a complete circle around the Galley and after a firework signal the `Galley Song` was chanted.

There were cheers for the galley builders and torch makers, the festival and the Guizer Yarl. On the last note of a bugle call all the hundreds of burning torches were thrown in to the galley which then burned fiercely.
The big wooden Galley named `Nils Olav` with its fearsome dragon like head was consumed in about an hour in a site closed to the public for safety reasons.

The squads then re-formed in to a circle and sang `The Norseman’s Home`. After a short but colourful fireworks display the squads dispersed to begin their round of the town for the all night entertainment.

There then followed the all-night party or rather series of parties all over Lerwick in the eleven so-called `halls` which are typically schools and community centres converted for the night.

For a ticket costing about £25 you can eat and dance (and discreetly drink) all night and be amused by the scores of colourful performers in their outrageously funny costumes. There were 47 squads in all with some hilarious acts and get-ups including `The Lego movie`, `In TA da dark`, `Fiddlin’ wi wir bags`, `Rolling Bones`, `MONTY’S PYTHON is resERECTED` and `Horny Germans`. There was traditional Scottish music, disco dancing, the St Bernard’s Waltz as well as the Fair Isle Morris Dance Team with the night going on till eight O’clock or so in the morning leaving everyone thoroughly exhausted but well entertained. Lerwick has a day off after Up Helly Aa with many businesses like the supermarkets and health centre closed and almost no buses running save the airport bus to Sumburgh.

My voyage home was on the ferry via Kirkwall in Orkney which added about an hour to the journey time. This time the boat was very busy with all cabins taken by people returning home to all parts of the globe including Oz. Many folk passed the long crossing by swapping stories of their sojourn in Shetland at the bar which stayed open until one in the morning. Despite some choppy water off Sumburgh Head and Fair Isle the MV Hrossey, sister ship of the Hjaltland arrived in Aberdeen harbour on time with passengers allowed to stay on the ship until 0930 and have breakfast.

Well that’s about it from Up Helly Aa for 2015 and also sadly from this year’s Australian Open tennis leaving Oz still seeking a singles champion – next year will be the 40th anniversary of Edo’s win in the 1976 final.

Will big Nick be champion next year? I’m not sure if I have the wisdom to forecast the outcome of Melbourne Park 2016. As Mr Abbott so elegantly put it: “No One Is the Suppository of All Wisdom” - so I can’t predict.

One thing that I can predict with some confidence is that I will be back up in Shetland next January and maybe even this June as well for the `simmer dim` of early summer when there is near 24 hour daylight.

I watched that classic film `Winter of our dreams` on the boat this January; could June/July be the `Summer of our dreams` when I celebrate winning AUD$20 million in TattsLotto as I stroll in the rosy twilight as it blends sweetly in to the Shetland dawn and I watch watch Nick Kyrgios lifting the silver gilt cup that is the Wimbledon crown? Likely? About as likely as Tony Abbott making a speech without a gaffe I suppose.

Still we can dream, can’t we?

Paul O'Hanlon
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