Equality row breaks out over male-only Up Helly Aa festival

A campaign group wants to bring gender equality to the annual Viking festival in Shetland.

Up Helly Aa: Only men can take part in the event. <strong>SWNS</strong>
Up Helly Aa: Only men can take part in the event. SWNS

Women have vowed to continue campaigning to allow females to take part in a male-only Viking festival after four schoolgirls had their applications to join the junior parade rejected.

Campaign group Up Helly Aa for Aa wants to bring gender equality to the annual Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands.

Every January 1000 men and boys march through the streets of the town during the festivity’s parade, before hurling flaming torches onto a Viking longboat.

The event excludes women from joining the procession, despite stories of female warriors in Viking folklore and other communities in the region allowing female participation.

Lerwick: The festivities take place every year. SWNS

A row has now erupted after campaigners complained about the council’s decision to allow the ‘jarl squads’ – the teams of dressed-up Vikings – to visit schools.

The council lets squads of male warriors visit primary schools, host a civic reception, and allow buildings to be used for festivities.

Campaigners wrote to the organisers of the junior Up Helly Aa event after four female Anderson High School pupils had their applications to join the parade rejected.

They said the junior committee did respond but only to confirm that they would not accept applications from girls.


Sally Huband, leader of the Up Helly Aa for Aa group, said: “We can no longer sweep this under the carpet.

“The fact remains there are females in Shetland who wish to participate but who are being prevented from doing so solely because they are women or girls.

“One of our main concerns is the message that is being sent out to schoolchildren and young people who are preparing for their future participation in a modern society which does not accept exclusion from events and festivals on the grounds of one of the Protected Characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, whatever the justification may be.

“Shetland should not become known as the one place in the country where discrimination is permitted and in fact encouraged by the local authority.”

However, council bosses ruled opening up schools to Shetland’s annual male-only fire festival did not breach equality laws.

Shetland Isles Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said she was “satisfied” the council “acts and behaves appropriately”.

She said: “I’m very well aware that there are strong feelings across the community about the involvement of women and girls in Shetland’s largest fire festival.


“It is not for Shetland Islands Council to pass judgement on how other organisations run their own business, but I did want to be assured that, as an organisation, the council acts and behaves appropriately in this respect.

“I am satisfied that this is the case.

“However, this has given us a welcome opportunity to clarify some existing guidance, particularly for our schools, on issues such as visits from jarl squads.

“While I understand the outcome of this may not be universally welcome, I can reassure everyone that we do have a robust system in place to make sure every complaint is taken seriously, and handled with care.”

Up Helly Aa organisers have been contacted for comment.

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