Mythology and Misogyny at the Edge of the World

IN THE EARLY hours of Jan. 28, 2020, an act of rebellion unfolds under the low-slung Shetland sky. The night feels closer, more enveloping at 60 degrees North, and as 5 a.m. nears, the women of Reclaim The Raven unsheath their surprise. 

It’s a demonstration decades in the works, targeted toward the men who organize and monopolize Lerwick’s annual Viking party, Up Helly Aa, a ritualized expression of Shetland’s invented cultural heritage and the largest fire festival in Europe. “Feminism” is still a dirty word in Shetland, and Reclaim The Raven has had enough.

Depending on who you ask, the combustible gender row has any number of causes, instigators, intensifiers. Fire and Vikings could be responsible. Oil rigs and ennui.

Shetland ponies don’t play a part, but Shetland knitwear certainly does. Here, in the primary port town of Britain’s most northerly isles, misogyny is buried under the ground, excavated for sport, then packed back down. It gains power in the darkness, the drinking, the dancing.

It’s in the bunker; it’s in the beds. It bends for the right people but always buoyantly returns to form–it’s exceptionally easy to disguise. 

But for years, if you asked most Shetlanders, regardless of gender, such a division didn’t exist at all. 

The men are afraid of the wimmin, but they can’t admit it. So instead, they safeguard, under lock and key, their God-given, gender-exclusive right to dress up as Vikings, wield torches, and sing Queen covers. 

TWENTY-TWENTY IS Liam Summers’ year. Draped in over £7,000 of armor and accouterments, he straightens his back, puts on his red velvet cloak, downs a dram, and looks in the mirror. At last, ax and shield in hand, he’s the Big Swinging Dick for a day – perhaps three – if the townspeople can keep up the drinking. 

On Jan. 28, 2020, after 15 years of waiting, Liam Summers is above the law. 

He’s the Jarl, after all: the proverbial Viking “king” of Lerwick Up Helly Aa. 

He is the leader of 1,000 men of varying consciousness levels participating in over 40 “squads.” Bearing torches, dressing in everything from tutus to T-Rex onesies, and performing skits at afterparties, the squads must maintain energy for at least 30 hours straight. 

Their day starts pre-sunrise, and their behavior stays stoic through the stroke of 7:30 p.m., when the expertly-choreographed torch-lit procession begins. The burning climaxes as the men circle a replica longship with ritualistic rigor. The spectacle is grand and worth the travel time and money for the thousands of tourists who attend. As the brass band strikes up “The Norseman’s Home” and the galley burns, it’s common for the men to shed tears. 

Then, it’s time for “the halls,” where sleep deprivation and drunkenness take over and the mask comes off. Though some halls host tourists, the merrymaking is for the locals – a time to celebrate the 364 days all volunteers have put into this year’s event. 

Attending a party in the halls feels like taking acid and attending ten different festivals that clumsily got double booked. It’s a stag party run rampant, it’s a drag show, it’s a Ren Faire, it’s a middle school dance, a fire hall fundraiser, a bender in your mom’s basement. And it lasts for 12 hours. 

Being Jarl at Up Helly Aa is considered the “best day of his life” for a Lerwick man, lore confirmed by Summers’ cherubic smile. 

Multiple generations of Up Helly Aa attendees | Photo by Paul Leask

Behind the smile is the immense organizational, imaginative, and financial heft he has thrown into making this Up Helly Aa perfect. He has been a life coach, an activist (taking a stance against the use of Blackface in the festival, helping to facilitate its ban in 2020), a clothing designer, a drinking partner, a media personality, and a friend to all. 

Now, he’s ready for the payoff. 

The next two days will unravel as they have for 142 years. In the evening, the torch-lit procession will commence with a gunshot as the smell of kerosene and the sight of rogue embers aggress and enchant. Tourists will snap photos, old friends will share drinks, and government officials will deliver handshakes. Summers will sit in a Viking longboat that took (male) community members six months to make and solemnly watch as it takes six minutes to burn. 

He will eat, drink, and be merry. He’ll sing two Up Helly Aa standards: “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” 20 times each (repeatedly during the day then once in each of the 11 halls). With a mythologized past on his breath and the key to the city in his hands, he and his squad will chant, “ai, ai, ai, oy, oy, oy.” 

He will hug his daughter and wife, but neither they nor any woman will be allowed to take part in the procession. When it’s all said and done, he’ll have the chance to frame and hang his underwear in The Douglas Arms pub.

Rest assured, Liam Summers will get the same bibulous and testosterone-filled Up Helly Aa as his predecessors. But first, he has to wrestle with something off script. 

CAMPAIGNING FOR inclusion in Lerwick Up Helly Aa isn’t novel – though many traditionalists want to believe it is. The men (and some women) spread misconceptions that the efforts are spearheaded by outsiders; colorful-haired bisexuals from exotic places like Liverpool and London who do not reflect the interests of full-blooded born-and-raised Shetland women. 

“We want it to stay the same,” traditionalists say to campaigners with muted aggression across Tesco’s dairy aisle, in cardio class, in the streets. “It’s only you outsiders who want it to change.” 

Shetlanders hate change. But their land has historically invited it – first as a stepping stone to other conquerable isles, next as an entry point to gallons of untouched oil lying unprofitably beneath their corner of undulating Atlantic. 

The islands’ two great invasions: the Vikings (1,200 years ago) and the oil industry (1971), rethreaded Shetland life with certain spoils, but also brought the ugly ends of cultural shift: corruption, controversy, consequences. 

The vikings rewrote laws (Norse law persisted until 1611), renamed settlements, and redesigned homes from round to rectangular. Their capable seamanship opened new horizons for trade and influence, and their equally capable destructiveness compelled them to kill the men and keep the women. 

Shetland spent the millennium between the Viking and oil invasions being annexed from the Norse Kingdom to Scotland as a dowry, and as a hub for above-board industries like fishing and knitwear and below-board industries like smuggling and prostitution. 

Then their natural resources were tapped.

Big oil’s invasion in the late ’70s shepherded the arrival of £100 million over the next 30 years. The influx of jobs eradicated unemployment, improved infrastructure, and erected leisure centers. But it also introduced environmental disaster, greater economic divide, and workers who harass women and get banned from chip shops for being “grown men struggling to behave like humans.”

Sentimental strands of Shetland’s bucolic peasant life still exist – the sheep, the silence, the simplicity. And leaving big things unsaid and unexamined allows some degree of harmony and happiness. 

The vikings were good to us. Everyone is equal here. They tell themselves myths as a layer of protection. Quite a few shades darker than white lies (and Shetland is very white), they reassure themselves “we have always treated our women well.” 

Treat their women well, most do. But as a collective of locals, oil rig workers, and vikings, many don’t. 

Gendered expectations (as you’d expect) stretch beyond Up Helly Aa and into the everyday.  Women didn’t attend funerals in Shetland until a couple decades ago, pubs tend to be dominated by filthy-mouthed men, and domestic abuse is on the rise, a particular worry when safety is often multiple ferry rides away and everyone on those ferries will know who the women are, what they’re escaping, and where they are going. 

“It’s almost like the 1950s,” shares Karrol Scott, a member of Reclaim the Raven. “Opportunities to participate in Up Helly Aa end for you unless you want to make soup and sandwiches. … You’ve got very limited roles compared to boys, who can do everything.” 

As a woman, you could be born in 7,500-person Lerwick, live there all your life, come from a long line of jarls, even the legendary Viking leader Ragnar himself, and not be allowed to participate in the procession. At Up Helly Aa, the id is unbridled, fire is the drug of choice, and the Jarl’s Squad is above the law. Women, donning their finest dresses, are mainly the support crew, scabbing their hands over gallons of smoky reestit mutton soup, keeping the men fed and the evening alive. 

Their role is so well-oiled and wonderfully complementary to the festival, an observer can easily understand how it took so long to integrate. “I wouldn’t want to be out there with all that fire and ice either,” a tourist from Wisconsin notes as she lends a helping hand to the smiling faces providing shelter, booze, and food. Without them (and the hosts) the festival would surely devolve into a drunken brawl. 

Modern day hostesses at the Bells Brae School kitchen with a favorite traditional soup on Up Helly Aa night – reestit mutton soup is made from dried salted lamb with tatties (potatoes) carrots, and neeps (turnips). The lamb is taken out and served up cold with bannocks (a quick bread). Photo by Coutts Photos.

The structure works, and for decades, the majority never questioned the gender ban. Now the script is changing. 

For a few parents, epiphany about Up Helly Aa’s exclusion didn’t strike until they had daughters. One mother recounted her primary school-aged daughter dreaming out loud about being a Viking. When her older brother told her “You can’t because you’re a girl,” it hit her how “fucked up it all is.” 

For others, like Helen Robertson, exclusion is as integral to life on Shetland as the sea. In a 2015 op-ed for The Shetland Times, she writes her realization as a young lass: 

The “Viking” next to me turned to me at lunch and said: “Whit wye is du no in da squad?” [What way are you not in the squad?]

Well, what way indeed? The simple answer I muttered at the time was: “Becis A’m a lass.” [Because I’m a lass.]

Helen Robertson, The Shetland Times, 2015

But this was just one red flag in a tapestry of wrongs: Robertson couldn’t join the Sea Scouts, play football, or take part in mixed crafts at school. Instead she, and all the other peerie lasses, had to knit. 

In sixth year (1985), she proposed gender roles in Up Helly Aa as a topic for the school’s debate club. Authority figures spared no mercy telling her it was a flippant debate. You can’t change Up Helly Aa. You can’t change tradition. That year, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” was on top of the charts, a detail Robertson wouldn’t see as auspicious until the song returned to popularity in 2023. 

“It makes me ashamed to be from Shet­land to think that some folk are so stuck in their ways that they value ‘tradition’ over ‘progress,’” she wrote in her 2015 op-ed. She’s far from alone, but in her outspokenness she represents an exception more than a rule; many Lerwick women opt not to speak on the record (or at all) about Up Helly Aa and the gender ban, due to a combination of fear, resentment, or utter disinterest. Those who do speak but are agnostic about the push for inclusion leave it at “[Up Helly Aa] is a great party” and downgrade the conversation to smalltalk. 

With centuries of silenced abuse and exclusion, “let us play with fire too” gets a lot of pushback for what seems like a small ask. So, Shetland women must get more creative with the push. 

CROUCHED IN Lerwick’s market cross, the Reclaim The Raven troop participates in some Shetlandic espionage. Sunlight won’t sneak in until 8:30 and will slip away by 3:40.  All is still, until the excited grumbles of grown men crawl closer. 

They hold their breath as the Jarl’s Squad enter their eyeline for the first tradition of the day: the posting of the “bill.”

The “bill,” one of many meticulously designed and well-marinated Up Helly Aa props, is a giant billboard fashioned to expose corrupt local events, council members, and civilians over the past year. It has a general overarching message and a “clandestine” one spelled out in red letters comprehensible only to the close-knit island community. Like most of the festival’s imagery, the art atop the bill is supremely masculine; at the bottom, the same refrain remains for centuries: “we axe for what we want.” 

This year, 2020, everything ties into the story of Odin — father of Thor, muse to pillagers of far-flung places  — the billhead, the dress, the art, the adornments. Liam Summers is cosplaying Odin himself for the duration of the festival. 

In Norse mythology, Odin is an immensely wise, one-eyed old man (having sacrificed his other eye for wisdom). His magic horse, Sleipnir, trawls around on eight legs, teeth inscribed with runes, galloping through the air and over the sea. The god of war, death, fury, ecstasy, wisdom, sorcery, kings, warriors, poets, berserkers, and outsiders, Odin governs over victory, death, knowledge, and ecstatic inspiration.

Summers, although a nice chap, is not all-knowing and is yet to trade an eye for wisdom. He has, however, traded years and thousands of pounds to arrive alongside members of the Up Helly Aa committee at 6 a.m. and see the stone pillar at the Market Cross draped in an act of defiance: a banner depicting an obstinate female warrior atop her horse with a glaring challenge to the festival’s organizers: “Have you forgotten those that bore you? Act lest the gods should intervene!”

As far as direct action goes, it’s a phenomenal exercise in knowing your audience. It’s austere. It’s funny. With one question, Reclaim The Raven flips the Up Helly Aa committee’s arguments – it’s tradition, it’s history – for continuous exclusion against them. Viking women, as any Victorian scholar or viewer of Hulu’s “Vikings” know, had rights far advanced for their time. They could own land. They could go to war. They could walk alongside the men, torches in hand. 
The lads are in a trap. 

No matter which path they choose – burn the alternative bill, let it stay, or pack it away and hope Reclaim The Raven takes angry Facebook commenters’ directive to “GIVE UP” – the ladies have made their point. 

If the thought that the alternative bill and the original could coexist passes one of their minds, it doesn’t last. The squad needs a place to put up the original bill and keep their Up Helly Aa itinerary to the minute. So, with the same ceremony it always merits, they hang their bill and tuck the alternative out of sight of oblivious visitors. 

The direct action ends up, of course, written out of popular discourse. Tourists remained clueless; the Jarl’s Squad stomped down The Esplanade and sang on

TWO MONTHS later, a viral viking came pillaging. COVID lockdown in Shetland was severe. Even with sprawling kilometers of uninhabited land to hike with no danger of breathing on another person, Shetlanders were only allowed one walk a day, within a few kilometers of home. 

City folk from the U.K. raced to purchase crofts on the isles, chasing a safer and slower way of life. They imagined themselves waking up invigorated by cold clean air,  spending their days tending to spry sheep and indulging long-lost hobbies like cooking, journaling, and brooding. Most only made it a couple months, shocked and disappointed when the isolation they sought became too isolating. 

The virus led to five deaths in a single care home. Drinking intensified. The suicide rate doubled. “There’s many men who are alcoholics and we have always had one of Scotland’s highest male suicide rates,” a local council woman shares.1 For a place where you are so deeply known, it’s easy to meet an anonymous end in Shetland. A quick drive through the night and a stumble off a craggy cliff makes the North Sea a net for the unhappy. 

The view of Lerwick from the harbor. Photo by Ronnie Robertson/Flickr/Creative Commons

Some use this statistic to defend UHA’s gender exclusion. “Squads are spaces for men to connect, converse and create. This can help reduce loneliness and isolation and support men’s mental wellbeing,” wrote councilwoman Maggie Sandinson in an op-ed for the Shetland Times in 2019. Drunken debauchery aside, the all-male camaraderie of the Lerwick squads does do good for the men. After long days of physical work, who wouldn’t cling to the opportunity to create, laugh, and connect with others who understand you? 

Lockdown continued, boredom abounded, and online discussions about UHA’s gender ban spun in circles. Facebook comments swelled with aggression –But it’s tradition. We want it to stay the same. Just go to the country ones! When will you lot give up! – then ceded to reason or, more likely, pressure. 

On January 30th, 2022, which should have been Up Helly Aa day, the push for inclusion escalated. A local man, Peter Hamilton, stood outside Lerwick Town Hall calling on the committee to allow women and girls to join the festival. He exclaimed that if they and the SIC didn’t enter talks to do so immediately, he would report the council to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. 

This protest was the last. After decades of feminist calls to action, a male voice was the one to finally break through to the powers that be. 

With two years for introspection, perhaps UHA committee members read feminist theory by the fire and looked hard into the eyes of their own illusions. More likely, as many resistors perceived, the community festival had to bend to the demands of a world that’s not their own. As local tourism ambassador and musician Claire White said at the time, it was an “evolution, not revolution.”

June arrived, lockdown restrictions eased, and the council ruled to lift the ban. Finally, the men released the last of their tight-held myth. Many men – “it was an easy decision to make” said one future jarl – let go graciously, easily. Others are still running around in circles, trying to snatch it back. 

Indeed, many Shetland men mourn for a time before feminism traveled up the current and landed on their jagged shore. 

  1. Due to community-led programs Shetland has recently been successfully
    reducing the suicide rate. ↩︎

IF YOU KNOW anything about Up Helly Aa, it’s probably wrong. 

“Up Helly Aa is an ancient Norse festival heralding the arrival of spring, which is observed annually at Lerwick in The Shetland Islands.”

London, May 26th, 1935
They’re Happy When They’re Vikings,” from The London Sunday Pictorial May 26th, 1935 
An Up Helly Aa cartoon from local Shetland artist Dirk

It’s not a pagan ritual passed down from the Norse era, unchanged for centuries. However, that’s what the festival’s traditions beg you to believe. “From grand old Viking centuries, Up Helly Aa has come…” begins the “Up Helly Aa Song,” sung with gusto again and again as the event unravels for thousands of tourists and locals in  Lerwick–and beyond.

The influence of the Up Helly Aa has a far and eccentric reach. The festival appears on the bucket lists of pyromaniacs from every continent, the Jarl’s squad is often bankrolled to appear at NYC’s Tartan Day Parade, and there’s been mini Up Helly Aas held as far as India, Australia, and New Zealand. Each year, it has the local draw of a high school football game with an Oktoberfest-level of tourist diversity and degeneracy. 

But Up Helly Aa wasn’t really Up Helly Aa until the late 1800s. The festival is an active example of Shetland’s ability to reinvent and improvise –there’s nothing “traditional” about it. 

In the words of UHA scholar, squad member, and would-be Jarl, Brydon Leslie: “[Up Helly Aa] is nothing to do with Vikings. It’s to do with having fun.” 

And “fun” it was from the start, at least for the young men. 

IT’S 1821, in the shadow of the Napoleonic wars: the boys are back in Shetland and behaving badly. The endless darkness has them missing the fight-or-flight of battle. Death and destruction are on their minds. They’re bored. And they’ve got guns. 

So, they start assembling the skeleton of what Up Helly Aa will become. The “festival” isn’t a festival but, rather, a loosely organized license to behave lawlessly: play with fire, fuck with your enemies, roll a blazing barrel through winding streets. Shetland is still following the Julian calendar, struggling to catch up as the rest of the world goes Gregorian; Christmas falls on the 5th of January, New Year on the 12th, and Up Helly Aa (Uphellia) 24 days after Aald Yule. 

Dressed in slipshod disguise, armed with homemade bombs and other tools of torment, they take to the streets of New Town (as Lerwick was then known). Life is tough on Shetland, and they need the release. 

“They’re boys just having fun, but today, we’d probably call them terrorists.” 

Brydon Leslie

As time passes, the young men become more inventive and organized, but no less fuelled by primal urges. They jazz up their guizing, trading pillowcases for cloaks. They supercharge their homemade bombs with dynamite, send long ropes with flaming balls through letterboxes, and terrorize the homes of the

middle class and other unpopular individuals. The explosions blow out windows, ringing up to 10 miles away. It’s The Purge, but not as homicidal.  

Like today’s Up Helly Aa, it isn’t meant to be mean-spirited, just “a laugh.” Blowing your nemeses’ doors off is something to do, after all, a wee spot of merry mischief in the night. Until 1880, no Viking nostalgia or romanticization underpinned Up Helly Aa. 
The hard Shetland lifestyle didn’t afford its inhabitants the luxury of nostalgia; as Leslie notes, “people don’t really have time to romanticize the past when they’re busy scrapping out an existence.” 

And so it was all dirt, danger, and (yes) death, fiery exercises in id until scholar/poet JJ Haldane Burgess traveled back up the  North Sea from University of Edinburgh to offer the men a suitably masculine opportunity to keep the fire and play dress up. 

“Haldane Burgess was really into Shetland’s Norse past. From then on, Up Helly Aa becomes increasingly Viking-ized,” says Leslie. 

With that, the Up Helly Aa of myth and fact commenced. From the 1880s until the 1930s, it was a festival exclusively for young men. Boys behaving badly, but this time they’re singing harmoniously and wearing horned hats. 

IN THE DAYS leading to Up Helly Aa 2023, Lerwick’s Lounge Bar is all men. Suited men. Face-tattooed men. Cartoon men (no women) on the walls. Fiddlin’ men (in the musical sense) on the stools. 

As 8 pm nears, empty pints of Tennent’s line the tables, and a light-hearted row ensues.

“Do you really think you can outdrink me?” 
“Oh, I can outdrink you mate. Today, tomorrow, the next day. Just fucking choose. I’ll do it right now!” 
“Brandy, whisky, gin?” 
“All of it, mate!” 

Twenty minutes later, the lad who can allegedly outdrink anyone any day of the week has bags under his eyes and is all but snoring on the table.

To his right, however, another fight cracks on. This one is equally Shetlandic, equally masculine. It’s a debate about the difficulty of taking unplanned time off in the oil industry– which, despite decline, still draws young men to Shetland with optimism in their eyes anticipating the lucrative opportunity to toil offshore before returning to Lerwick sex-starved, agitated, and in need of a pint. 

The younger man slides his finished glass away to free up his right hand to enter the other man’s personal space and begins “… it’s because you council fucking morons don’t give a shit!” 

The fiddle player’s strumming matches the arguers’ intensity. Tennent’s pints empty. The young man starts “covertly” vaping. “No vaping inside!” someone shouts. 

“Because of you, I missed the funeral, ye feckin’ idiot,” the closet vaper yells before heading to the toilet. 

Scenes like this are common the weeks before the festival, says Jon Pulley, UHA committee member, archaeologist, and 2036 Jarl (yes, they plan 15 years ahead). But during the actual procession, everyone tightens up their acts. One would reasonably assume that a thousand costumed and drunken men wielding fire would invite mayhem, even accidental death. That’s the remarkable thing about UHA – so they say – there has never been an accident. The festival polices itself to a remarkable degree. If you’re caught taking a bump of white powder by the wrong person you’re done for a decade, if not life. Same if you attempt to light a cigarette with your torch, shit in the street, disrespect the Jarl. 

The fear of not being able to participate in Up Helly Aa is greater than the desire to rebel. During the festival, the entire community’s pride is at stake, and, in the age of surveillance, this has only become more palpable. Up Helly Aa is now prey to the scrutiny of the entire world. From National Geographic to TikTok, what once was a sacred island ritual whose scandals, secrets, and misogyny never crossed the North Sea is now a global spectacle. 

Today, Blackface, yellowface, and squads with names like “Stanley Goes to Bollywood” and “Jamesie’s Wet Dream” no longer stride through the Lerwick streets. “There definitely was more madness before smartphones and what not,” says Pulley. Though he’s adjacent to the pre-festival revelry – and loves some good bev and banter – Pulley doesn’t make a fool of himself. Tall, stoic, and sturdy, in another life, he could’ve been Leif Erickson. 

In 2022, a research project undertaken on behalf of the BBC for its “Blood Of The Vikings” series drew eager volunteers from around the islands. Everyone jumped at the opportunity to prove they were of Nordic stock. Long queues protruded from the Family History Society onto the pavements of streets with names like St. Olaf and King Harald. For the majority, the wait was worth it – 60 percent of the islands’ 22,000 residents had DNA of Norwegian origin, most likely passed on from the Vikings.

And Pulley knows the land with Viking precision. A tattoo of the archipelago spreading across his rugby-thickened thigh, he proudly confesses to his scenic tour clients that his grandfather traced their lineage of Lerwick Pulley men 12 generations back to 1709. 

For Shetlanders like Pulley, true freedom lies in familiarity. Though he went to Glasgow for university, he always knew he’d return. To him, there’s something liberating about being known so deeply that nothing comes as a shock. Your teenage growing pains become character certainties. You always know who you’ll piss off with any given action and who you will pull affectionately back into your orbit. There are no surprises. Instead, there’s safety, unlocked doors, excellent gossip. Lose your job; you have a thousand friends to lean on. Your shoulders relax, you get a tattoo of the islands on your thigh, you live longer

But familiarity also breeds contempt, stagnation, and fear of speaking up. 

“The silent majority have always wanted inclusion,” Scott says, “but it’s difficult for people to speak up here.” The consequences of voicing an opinion in Shetland can be harsh. Businesses that don’t donate to Up Helly Aa squads are shunned. Women who deny a Viking a dance are insulted. 

The aftermath of Helen Robertson’s early attempts at campaigning caused strain on her father, whose colleagues and friends were aghast at a young woman messing with their myths.“It has been very difficult over the past 40 years knowing the strength of hate towards me for speaking out,” she says.  “I stopped openly campaigning. … I simply stopped going. I suppose that’s how community pressure works.” 

In the same breath traditionalist men say, “we’re fair and tolerant here,” they also say “shut up.” 

They pride themselves on myths of unity, justifications that discrimination – class, gender, or racial – doesn’t exist. “We’re not inbred like the Western Isles. …We’re much more diverse and accepting,” says a Scalloway museum trustee.

Similarly, every man you ask in the Lounge Bar will wax poetic about class mixing in squads with strange precision as if coached by a PR expert. “You can have the council boss and the bin man in the same squad.” “You can go to the pub and stand between a surgeon and the bin man.” “At Up Helly Aa, it doesn’t matter if you’re the Jarl or the bin man.” 

But what if you’re the bin woman?

“In the Shetlands, women are the best men.”

Negley Farson, Buffalo Evening News, March 1928
Photo by Paul Leask

The roles of Shetland women have usurped expectations of foreign journalists for centuries. When they anticipated “salt sprayed islands where waiting wives knit their souls into woolen masterpieces,” they instead found a hard-scrabble existence of absent men and ubiquitous, hard-working women. 

“Shetland women and Shetland ponies carry all the burdens of the island[s],” wrote Edgar L. Wakeman in 1890.

“There they run the house, till the soil, and complain not…Certainly the men do cut the peat, but the women stack it to dry, turn it and stack it again, and afterwards carry it home on their backs,” cried The Kansas City Star in 1910. 

“A drab existence,” many writers found it, one impossible to imbue with romanticization. 

The words journalists used to describe Shetland women share too many overlapping adjectives with the rhetoric used to describe Shetland ponies. In international opinion, they are “stocky and weather-beaten,” “hardy and well-equipped with the proper garb for their various occupations,” walking tens of miles across the mainland only to arrive back home “quiet and uncomplaining.”

The descriptions are so hard-fastened that Betty Moaut, a 60-year-old woman who survived days adrift in the stormy North Sea off two biscuits and a bottle of milk, was described as “weather-beaten, stoic, and uncomplaining” when she washed up alive on the Norwegian coastline in 1886. When murmurs of the Shetland women’s 1978 “warpath against strippers for lonely oilmen” spread across the sea into American papers from Roanoke to Binghamton, the focus was less on their activism and more on their “hardiness” and tendency to “shun lipstick and other makeup.” 

For all their work, Shetland women got little credit, only pity. 

Until the 1960s, women outnumbered men in the isles. They, historically, dominated the home and family life, taking on community, croft, and household roles as the men escaped to the sea, fishing or whaling for prolonged periods. Lynn Abrams, a professor of gender history, goes as far as to call Shetland a “woman’s island,” in her study Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World

Hostesses and helpers posed with tea cups, pots of tea and jugs of milk and bowls of sugar in Lerwick during Up Helly Aa 1960. They served tea and food to guests and guizers the whole night, from 9 p.m. until 8 a.m the following day. Photo by Coutts Photos.

“Narratives of the past including personal and family lore are constructed within a larger myth system that excludes as much as it includes,” Abrams writes in Myth and Materiality.

Who was in control of the myth of Shetland women as uncomplaining? Men. 

So, the silent majority was introduced, fearful of cracking the town’s illusion of cohesion by speaking up for inclusion; and, in turn, fueling Shetland men’s delusions that a woman should be overworked and uncomplaining. 

Myth and lore color the worldview that the women of Shetland have for themselves. But it’s all up for interpretation: where some see limitations, others see the advantages of being quietly in control. 

If Shetland is still a woman’s island, then Up Helly Aa squads could be described as safe spaces away from women for the men to drink and fart freely. 

“You got squads who have evidently been practicing and practicing [their skits] steadily for many weeks. They’re obviously very good. And then you’ve got squads like my squad who don’t do much,” Brydon Leslie shares. 

When asked what they do instead of preparing, a simple one-word answer paints the story: “Drink.”

So is it fair to say that men don’t want women – already running everything on the islands – involved in their squads, telling them what to do there, too?

“Yes,” he replies. 

AS THE MEN prepare for Up Helly Aa 2023 by forgetting every night preceding it, those who campaigned for inclusion enjoy a more relaxed lead-up. 

“We did have some direct action prepared, but we didn’t have to use it,” Scott says, opening a box of flyers, op-eds, and other imaginative interventions. Headlines like Women Can be Vikings Too, We Axe For What We Want, It’s Time to Change Tradition, are now relics of the fight they won.

Some campaigners celebrate the first inclusive UHA by not attending. Instead, they unwind at home, putting their feet up after a nearly decade of direct action. Scott spends her Tuesday evening cozy at home with a movie. Another campaigner enjoys a hike with her dogs. “It’s all just a bit boring after a while. How much can you really drink and dance anyway? I prefer the country [fire festivals],” she says. 

Across the sound, Lerwick is sheltered from the east by Bressay, an isle unspoiled and undisturbed by the capital’s gender row. Bressay’s small fire festival has long included women in the procession (although they had their own drama in 2016, which involved the to-be Jarl sending dick pics to an underage girl). Most country fire festivals across Shetland allow women to carry torches and guize, giving fodder to anti-feminists in Lerwick that the women who want to be torch bearers in Lerwick Up Helly Aa should “just go to the country ones.”

In Shetland, the fire festival season (there are 12 in total) starts with Scalloway, Shetland’s ancient capital and a village of only 1,000. During the derivative of UHA, there is a near 50/50 split of women and men. Though there are no mixed squads or women in the Jarl’s squad, viking princesses (daughters of squad members) skip and chase each other through the streets. 

16 Bearly Burra was a squad of guizers dressed as “Burra Bears” for Up Helly Aa 2020. There is a woman on the Shetland island of Burra who produces and sells Burra Bears, teddy bears covered in Fair Isle patterned knitwear. Photo by Coutts Photos.

The afternoon leading up to the 2023 Scalloway procession is all auspicious sunshine and smiles. But just as the torches flare, rain pours down. Eyelashes freeze over. An aggrieved tween yells at her mother, “I’m done doing this shite. Every year the day is drenching!” 

However, the cold can’t overpower the collective excitement. Shetland has missed her fire festivals; even the locals who didn’t habitually attend before 2020 come out in droves with their cheerful children in tow. And National Geographic is here. (Though that’s more a point of resentment than thrill, a local bartender assures.) 

As the galley is pushed out to sea, a five-year-old girl calls her friends into her joy, “This is my favorite part! It’s the most beautiful thing–when you destroy it, you get to start again.” 

The boat burns. Everyone runs into the halls. A squad of men performs a skit mocking Lerwick’s lack of urgency to integrate. Dressed in drag, they chant “Lerwick let us in! Lerwick let us in!” The crowd laughs, dances, cheers. 

TWO WEEKS later, at 5 am in Lerwick’s Bells Brae primary school, a giant hat twirls and two-steps over a sticky gymnasium floor. A human candy bar gyrates to Rihanna, a gaggle of Where’s Waldos dance to the Scissor Sisters,  a poorly-constructed cosplay of English soccer captain Harry Kane unzips a red vest to reveal sagging, udder-esque breasts.

There are Britney Spears cosplays, trolls, tutus, and lots of fake tits. The skits are of varying themes and degrees of quality. Depending on the squad, inebriation into the night either aids or abates the execution. Of the 1,000+ Shetlanders in the squads, there are 7 women, 7 more than in any previous festival. 

Guizers in a 2019 squad performed a dance routine inspired by a British television talent show called “Stars in Their Eyes.” Photo by Coutts Photos.

In the bathroom, crouched over sinks made for eight-year-olds, the gossip pours as freely as the booze in the cloakroom (no drinks allowed on the dance floor). “I heard that one squad is performing ‘Womanizer’ because Neil’s [this year’s Jarl] is one,” one young woman informs another. “I don’t get it, he’s not even fit,” she responds. 

Attractive or not, this year’s Big Swinging Dick, Neil Montcrieff, is well over six foot tall and notoriously amorous. He spent the morning plodding down the promenade in his cartoonishly large fur boots unaware that his philandering ways were about to be put under the microscope for 12 hours straight. Now, he is in the center of the gym floor, eyes tired, forcing his way through his umpteenth performance of “Don’t Stop Me Now.” 

At Up Helly Aa, not even the Jarl is safe from light-hearted ridicule. Pulley says that the skits are meant to crusade against tall poppy syndrome. “A flower head can never go too far above the wall. If it does, you have to cut it down,” he says.

And so they do. Going after the council, celebrities, town icons, the Shetland space center, the skits continue for hours, always humbling those who need it, and occasionally nonsensical to those who aren’t privy to local lore. 

THE UHA integration dilemma mirrors what many (namely white men) yearn for: a time where they didn’t have to care about other people; a time when equality was an abstract ideal, nothing to urgently put into practice. But in 2023, equality left the abstract and processed through Lerwick. The night carried on with just as much machismo and manic fun as it has for 200 years but this time with women and without Blackface or musical displays of orientalism. Torches burned but, despite what certain Facebook groups believed, the world did not. 

Shetland doesn’t have a monopoly on personal and collective mythology, of course. People everywhere eagerly swab their spit, send it to a lab, and allow their face to alight at the most distant piece of heritage. They parade a 10% Irish-positive test through St. Paddy’s day celebrations and into pubs. They check “Native American” on college applications after confirms long-held family lore about a Cherokee great-great grandma. 

We all hang onto the myth that others us in the right ways – just enough for intrigue, not enough to experience more discrimination. Leaning into the most romantic, outrageous, or sympathetic story, we paint our lives with white lies – often the white lies of white people and polish that one anecdote with preposterous new details in every retelling. 

And as some get further from heritage, they have the opportunity to invent, lie, gate-keep. Up Helly Aa isn’t an anomaly, it’s just a better-organized expression of the untruths we all tell ourselves. 

And what a luxury it is to live the myth. Romanticize your origins, scream-sing Queen, put a cigarette out on your hand. 

OUTSIDE, THE survivors of Up Helly Aa 2023 stumble into winding roads. At 11 am, under the winter sun after 30 hours of jollification, everything looks a little different. The human candy bar has feet, even a face! Everyone is weary yet unblinking. A woman pleads on Facebook “where is my husband? I just need to know!” The hallucination is over, but the party isn’t. Shetlanders pride themselves on their fabulous but equally cirrhosis-inducing ability to drink for days and stay standing and singing. And so they do. 

Men in disguise, women in dresses, they walk toward the after-after party, where you’re no longer a squad member or a spectator, a feminist or a fascist, a Viking or a Scotsman, you’re just another merry drunk trotting by the Tesco, groping around for truth, waiting for seals to swim up to the shore of an island your ancestors invaded centuries ago. 

Kiki Dy

Kiki Dy (she/her) is a Savannah-based writer, tea-drinker, and dreamer. Her portraits of small peculiar places appear in Belt Magazine, The Phoenix, and The Real Story. When not working, she’s usually shortening her lifespan with fun-filled flair. You can contact her via Twitter, which she intends to use professionally despite her username.

This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers and publishing partner Ruth Ann Harnisch. Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.