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Nordic spirit burns bright

While schools in mainland Scotland have been learning poems and singing songs for Robert Burns's 250th anniversary, in Shetland the focus has been on the Vikings.

This week saw the start of the islands' annual Up Helly Aa festivities when, from now until mid-March, Shetlanders of all ages dress up in Viking gear and parade through the streets in remembrance of their Nordic ancestors. The biggest and oldest festival took place, as usual, on the last Tuesday of January in the capital, Lerwick, where the celebrations are so hectic they are followed by a public holiday.

Kirsty Clark, the education officer for Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, says: "The museum is 'Viking Central', with around 20 primary schools from as far away as the islands of Foula and Fair Isle scheduled to visit for a guided tour of our permanent Viking exhibition.

"Shetland schools gear their Viking topic to this time of year, because it connects with the festivals taking place. The kids love Up Helly Aa and that part of Shetland's culture, and I always tell new museum staff that they'll be amazed by how much the children already know when they come for a tour."

Up Helly Aa day in Lerwick normally attracts a record 1,000 people to the museum with local primary schools often choosing to visit that week. This year, they got the opportunity to decorate a Viking shield or make a Thor hammer pendant.

Lerwick's day kicks off each year at 8pm when more than 900 costumed men, broken into 40 different squads of guizers, parade through the town carrying burning torches and dragging a Viking galley which is then ceremoniously burned.

Leading the parade is the 50-strong Jarl Squad, the only group allowed to wear traditional Viking outfits including full chain mail, helmets, axes and shields. Of Shetland's eight Up Helly Aa festivals, Lerwick's is the only one which sticks to the tradition of not allowing females to dress up as guizers.

There is also a Junior Jarl Squad of 15 S2 boys from the town's Anderson High, who hold their own parade with torches and a mini Viking galley in the early evening.

A third, much shorter, parade is held mid-morning when the Jarl Squad proceeds along the High Street, watched by pupils from Bell's Brae Primary, the biggest in Shetland. Headteacher Jennifer Wadley says: "All the children get very excited about the Vikings and Up Helly Aa, particularly as we're one of two primaries in Lerwick which are visited on the day by the squad, who present us with a special Viking shield, and the Junior Jarl Squad.

"As well as watching the parade and visiting the museum, we have invited a Viking Times education group to the school next month to give the pupils an interactive experience of everyday Viking life."

Bell's Brae and Sound primary schools also feature on a list of the 12 community halls that Lerwick's 40 squads must visit in turn - receiving soup and bannocks from their female hosts in exchange for a rehearsed "party piece" - during a marathon all-night session that takes off after the parade and runs until 8am the following morning.


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