Burning Desire for Change

Was Up Helly Aa  history made in Shetland ?

Up Helly Aa Zara PWas Up Helly Aa (Europe’s biggest fire festival) history made in Shetland today with four women from the ‘Shetland For Up Helly Aa Equality Group‘, attempting to officially register a squad at the Lerwick Galley shed for what appears to be the first time in the history of the festival, something I was lucky enough to be able to report on for the Orkney News.

This was following a public advert in the Shetland Times asking for squads to attend this meeting on a first come first served basis.

The women’s request was denied as they were not in a registered squad despite never having been asked who they were –  do members of the committee have a photographic memory? or was it the fact that they were women?

If so does that mean that the festival officially excludes women? something the committee has refused to clarify when this issue has been raised in the past.

After queuing for an hour awaiting registration in this “local bastion of the patriarchy”, the man behind them in the queue was called, after pointing out this lack of manners, entrance up the stairs to where the registration process was happening was prevented by a man proudly describing himself as “key holder” of the shed. What that entails or how one proceeds to become a registered squad or indeed what the inner sanctum of the Galley Shed hold are still questions unknown to womankind.

Now the shock waves from this historic move may soon be lapping quietly at the shores of Orkney do not let that distract from the impact this can have on feeling empowered to have a voice with your community and the confidence to challenge inequality based on privilege where ever you find it.

One  woman who wishes to remain anonymous due to the animosity that emerged on social media around the issue of the exclusion of women last January commented:

“I really wasn’t that bothered about Up Helly Aa. But changed my mind when I became appalled reading the deluge of angry, misogynistic comments from men on Social Media that are embolden by the privilege they have in our community.”

Another added that if you would have said five years ago that women in Saudi Arabia would be allowed to drive before girls were allowed to take part in Junior Up Helly Aa everyone would have laughed! now it is not funny it’s just embarrassing for Shetland.

A woman who has been a Lerwick resident for twenty-two years, and who has been an active squad member in the country festivals told me that what would be really meaningful for her would be to participate in a squad for Up Helly Aa where she lives.

Women in Shetland have found their voice and found that speaking up is empowering! We will not be put back in the box or indeed the kitchen, times have changed and it’s time for Up Helly Aa to change with them.

If anyone has any information on Women attempting to enter a squad previously in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa would they please contact me via the Orkney News as I would love to hear about it.

Zara Pennington

Up Helly Aa Zara P


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4 replies »

  1. This is a good thing to bring forward, Zara. And I must admit, not something that had occurred to me! Maybe because I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Up Helly Aa.
    There are women’s football teams, rugby teams, cricket teams – all previously viewed as bastions of male exclusivity.
    There is no real reason why women shouldn’t have a Jarl Squad, except for antiquated tradition. Some traditions are sensible, and useful – this one isn’t.
    And, on a lighter note – I think the sight of a female Jarl Squad, resplendent in full ‘gear’, marching, would be absolutely magnificent!
    Boudicca would be proud. I mean it.

    The pride in being ‘key holder’? – well I have to admit – I believe that females can be as guilty of that kind of ego trip, as males.
    ‘Key Holder Of The Shed’ – dilutes the grandeur, a bit! “What a gift that God could gi’ us………….”

  2. You say here these women were prevented from going to where the registration was happening, this night was not for registration of squads, lerwick Up Helly Aa (not knows by anyone as “LHUA”) is at full capacity and has been for decades. This night was to register only you’re idea for an act.

    If you were 4 males who were not in a registered squad you’d still have had no more sucess than you had…

    To the person who’s already commented saying there are womens football teams, rugby teams etc…correct, so here’s an idea, why not have you’re own Womens Lerwick Up Helly Aa? (You could even call it WLUHA)

    • Yea they could? But if you look around John, every other district lets women in so there’s no need for a separate one. I don’t anticipate dir wid be numbers tae support a separate one anyway, only a few ta make up numbers as mixed squads….

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