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Sunday 27 July 2008

Stromness Shopping Week

Last night was the end of “Shopping Week” in Stromness (an annual gala week that’s been going for 60 years now). I didn’t go over to participate in the last evening which normally ends in a firework display. Usually I sit in the conservatory with a glass of wine (or a mug of Ovaltine depending on mood) and watch the fireworks, but last night was shrouded in thick mist – I didn’t hear any loud noises from the Mainland so either the display was cancelled or the mist well and truly muffled any sound!

The final night celebrations begin about 8pm with a parade of floats through the town, some designed lampooning various local characters or situations, and interspersed with various local pipe bands. The pubs then turf everyone out onto the street and it’s the start of a fairly rowdy outdoor party with music from bands on a dias at the Town House, culminating in a firework display about 11pm. Though of course the party continues well into the wee small hours.

One amazing thing is that next morning the streets are sparkling clean – thanks the army of street cleaners who apparently start about 5am!

However earlier in the week was an event I really wish I had participated in. It was described to me by some friends and I’ll try and recreate the scene for you. It was a mock “Up Helly Aa” ( (which is a Winter fire festival in Shetland). Earlier this week the Shetland Jarl Squads were in Stromness in traditional dress. Viking attire complete with winged helmets – there was the blue team and the silver team, all male of course – they’re Vikings after all….. (I’m sure they had more heroic names than “blue team” and "silver team" but the friends who went along didn’t seem to know.) The silver team brandished metal swords, while the blue team just had wooden ones. Both teams gathered in the centre of Stromness, complete with a small wooden boat (a replica Viking long-ship) with papier-mache dragon figure heads etc. OK this sounds a bit tacky, and so my friends thought – till the torches were lit. Huge flaming torches were held aloft and a procession weaved its way through the winding main street of Stromness. People feared for the safety of the bunting waving in the breeze such was the height of the flames. Townsfolk and visitors alike joined in behind the procession, with much macho shouting. Sadly some of the macho effect was lost as the longship was dragged through the streets not by hefty Viking warriors but by a big truck with, incongruously, an accordionist playing traditional Scottish music on the back!

However, the torchlight procession weaved it’s progress through the town to the Point of Ness, where the long-ship was then ritually burned with the Jarl torches – though the amount of black smoke suggested the blaze was helped along by some modern day “burning fluid”. Apparently it all felt very pagan and wonderfully stirring walking behind the blazing torches. If the Jarl Squads return I must go along as it sounds wonderful and I have to say has made me want to travel to Shetland to experience the real “Up Helly Aa”!

Some links: Shetland-opedia:

Photos of the Shetland Up Helly Aa:


  1. Wish I'd seen the longship burning in Stromness too. I saw Roy Leask's Jarl Squad in Kirkwall a while back when they did a joint parade with the Kirkwall City Pipe Band - complete with burning torches.

    In Stromness Shopping week the 'blue team' and 'white team'would have been the Scalloway Jarl Squad and the Cullivoe Jarl Squad - sorry I don't know which is which.

  2. Oops should have read that better before I posted, it was of course 'blue team' and 'silver team'.

  3. What a wonderful-sounding drunken brawl! Thanks for telling us about it.