Up Helly Aa festival to include female guizers for first time

Women have historically been restricted to taking part in as 'hostesses'.

For the first time next year, women and girls will be invited to join in with Shetland’s biggest Up Helly Aa celebrations.

The community fire festival, which celebrates the island’s Viking heritage, has historically seen costumed men – known as guizers – parading the streets in groups known as squads.

The traditional event takes place each year on the last Tuesday of January, marking the end of Yule season and consists of an impressive torch-lit procession of over 900 guizers and the burning of a galley. 

This precedes an all-night long series of performances by the guizers in their different squads as they rotate around a series of halls within Lerwick, the island’s capital. 

Until now, guizers at the main festival in Lerwick have always been male, with women and girls have been able to volunteer as hostesses – organising the parties which follow the famous torchlight procession. 

Groups such as Up Helly Aa for aa have long campaigned for the inclusion of females and equal opportunity in the island’s largest festival.

The decision to relax the long-standing custom in 2023 was taken by the Lerwick Up Helly Aa Committee after members discussed how to take the event forward following a two-year absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Committee secretary Robert Geddes said: “We felt that it was time to give squads a choice over their guizers, including allowing female participation.

“Everybody is looking forward to the return of Up Helly Aa after an unprecedented two-year break because of Covid. 

“The decision means the festival in Lerwick on Tuesday January 31, 2023 will have a different dimension to it, but we have no doubt that its essence and spirit will remain the same.” 

Mr Geddes pointed out that change would be evolutionary and within squads at this stage given that the festival is already at full capacity with 47 squads. 

He added: “We run a large and popular fire festival and have unfortunately had to turn down applications from folk wanting to start new squads, or looking to increase maximum numbers within squads, over the past few years. 

“That said, there is always a turnover of guizers within squads from year to year, and by giving squads the freedom to choose we are actively allowing change to happen.”  

The other criteria for participation – that guizers must be 16 or older and have resided in Shetland continuously for five years – will remain the same.

A spokesperson for campaign group Up Helly Aa for aa said: “This is absolutely wonderful news and something that members of our community have been asking for over a long period of time.

“We are more than delighted that the UHA Committee has listened to folk who want the festival to be inclusive.

“This is a great day for our inclusive Shetland community

“We look forward to hearing more details and look forward to seeing an inclusive Jarl Squad lead the procession in future processions.”

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