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Beard protest inflames Shetlands Viking festival

By Simon Busch, CNN
January 28, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
The Up Helly Aa festival, a celebration of the Shetland Islands' Viking heritage, kicked off Tuesday in the capital of the Scottish region, Lerwick. The Up Helly Aa festival, a celebration of the Shetland Islands' Viking heritage, kicked off Tuesday in the capital of the Scottish region, Lerwick.
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Beards for bellowing with
Hairy protest
Fire season
Axes to grind
Torchlit procession
Ring of, yes, fire
Boat blaze
Pillager in training
Where's the mead?
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Viking-themed fire festival kicks off in Shetland Islands
  • Two "Vikings" were banned from a local fire-fighting crew for refusing to shave
  • Ironic, because Up Helly Aa is pretty incendiary
  • A torchlit procession culminates in the immolation of a longboat

(CNN) -- A spectacular Viking-themed festival kicking off in the Scottish Shetland Islands Tuesday has been stoked by controversy after two participants refused to shave off their beards.

The men were preparing for the region's midwinter Up Helly Aa festival -- a highlight of the tourist calendar -- but their facial hair was judged incompatible with emergency breathing equipment they were obliged to don as fire fighters on their home island of Bressay.

The pair's stance has thus deprived the tiny isle of a fire team until the festivities wind up, the Scotsman reports.

The "beard protest" may testify to the significance of Up Helly Aa to the inhabitants of this remote group of islands strung out between the Scottish mainland and Norway.

Or it may point to the importance of beard size to Shetlands men.

Either way, it does seem risky to be without a fire crew amid a season of celebrations whose main event, taking place Tuesday in the Shetlands capital of Lerwick, is described by organizers as "Europe's largest fire festival."

Pyromaniacal delights

The fiery festival includes a torch-lit procession through town and culminates in the burning of a replica Viking longship -- all broadcast live online.

Up Helly Aa (it sounds best if you shout it) may commemorate the Shetlands' ancient Viking heritage -- hence the importance of big bushy beards -- but the festival itself began only a little more than a century ago.

It's the continuation of an older and even more fun-sounding bit of midwinter revelry that involved young men dragging burning tar barrels through their village and generally causing mischief.

When tar-barelling was banned, to the sound of much presumed Methodist tut-tutting, it was replaced in the 1880s by the tamer torch parades and other pieces of incendiary merriment that have continued to this day on the Shetlands, barring adjournments for the death of Queen Victoria and two world wars.

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"Torch-uous" procession.

A jarl and his guizers

As part of Tuesday's Lerwick celebrations, a procession of up to a thousand torch-bearing "guisers" in Viking fancy dress are led through town by a head "jarl."

The party sets ablaze a mocked-up longship in what begs to be interpreted as an ambivalent commemoration of the raping and pillaging Scandinavian contribution to the local gene pool.

The jarl (it means "nobelman" in Old Norse; "guiser" means "disguised person" in Scots) sets the fashion tone for the parade with a costume handed down to his successor every year.

Its original items, the Up Helly Aa website records, included "a silver helmet, with raven's wings ... a corselet with sleeves of silver mail ... thigh-length black stockings and ... rawhide sandals fastened with tan leather thongs criss-crossed over the instep and all the way up the thighs."

One wonders what the Scottish equivalent of "I'm a lumberjack" is.

The jarl's "guiser squad" make their own weapons -- and grow their own beards -- throughout the year, including battle axes, swords, spears and crossbows.

Torch songs

They also do a lot of singing, with lines such as:

Worthy sons of Vikings make us
Truth be our encircling fire
Shadowy visions backward take us
To the Sea-King's fun'ral pyre.

No wonder authorities are worried about fire risks.

To return to which subject, a Shetlands safety board member, Allison Duncan, described the Bressay firefighters' refusal to lose their bushy symbols of Norse manhood -- thus "putting the safety of Bressay people at risk" -- as "crazy [and] mind-boggling."

The crewmen themselves, possibly too busy preparing their beards for the big day, could not be reached for comment.

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