Friday, 23 January 2015

A Potted History of Up Helly Aa

Ancient Roots

Up Helly Aa, as it's known today, is a relatively recent introduction to the Shetland calendar, though its origins are rooted far back in time. The torchlit procession and burning of the galley (Viking longship) stem from the ritual cremations of Norse chieftains and the ancient pagan ceremonies held to welcome the return of the sun following the winter solstice. The elaborate use of disguises seen today echo prehistoric fertility rites; even until the Middle Ages people dressed in straw costumes to encourage the gods to bless them with bountiful crops and productive animals. The feasting and all-night partying is reminiscent of the Viking drinking halls of times gone by. Norse skalds were known for their sharp wit and today this tradition is continued in the form of the 'Bill' which is displayed on the Market Cross from early morning on the day of Up Helly Aa.

A Different Calendar to the Rest of the UK

Shetland retained the Julian calendar long after the rest of the UK adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. This meant Christmas was celebrated on the modern-equivalent of January 5th, New Year on January 12th, and Uphellia which marked the end of the Yuletide festivities was celebrated 24 days after Christmas making it the 29th January. The celebrations involved fire and feasting, but not Vikings.

It's all Napoleon's Fault

The Auld Yule and Auld New Year (old Christmas and New Year) were celebrated in Lerwick with guizers (people in disguise) grouping together to visit private houses and be treated to food and drink. The festivities were lively and lasted all night. Uphellia festivities, on the other hand, are thought to have been more of a rural tradition, presumably because appeasing pagan gods in the hope of ensuring a good crop was of far more relevance to the country folk than the townsfolk. The festival only really spread to the main town of Lerwick when soldiers and sailors returning from the Napoleonic Wars brought their newly-acquired tastes for firearms and debaucherous partying with them. The adoption of Uphellia was a good excuse to let their hair down, kick their heels up and set fire to things.

This year's Up Helly Aa programme quotes the diary entry of a Methodist missionary who visited in 1824:

'the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o'clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night - the street was thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.'

A Merging of Traditions (and calendars)

Over time the Auld Yule and Auld New Year traditions in Lerwick melded with the rural Uphellia celebrations in the beginnings of the Up Helly Aa festival we see today. By 1879 it was decided that Christmas and New Year would follow the rest of Britain and be held on the 25th December and 1st January. The Uphellia celebrations continued to adhere to the old calendar and were still held on January 29th.

Burning Barrels of Tar

Around 1840 burning tar barrels were rolled down Lerwick's narrow main street for the first time. Rum or beer casks were cut in half and filled with wood shavings mixed with coal tar (the tar being acquired as it was 'accidently' left outside the gasworks). Up to ten barrels would be fastened to a trolley and pulled, burning, through the street. This continued until the 1870s when the ideas that are still seen today started to come into play. The tar barrels had been dirty and dangerous, more so because rival groups often came to blows when they met in the street. Special constables were introduced to little effect. Despite complaints by the middle classes and interventions by the town council it seems that the tar barrelling only came to an end because the interests of the participants were changing and enthusiasm was developing in Shetland's Viking past.

And then there were Vikings

Firstly, the festival began to be known as Up Helly Aa (sometimes Up Helly A') and, rather than the 29th, the last Tuesday in January was fixed as the date. Guizing was introduced in a much more elaborate form, as was the torchlight procession. The first clear Viking themes were introduced in 1877 and in 1881 the first torchlight procession took place with 60 torches carried through the street. By the late 1880s the galley (Viking longship) had appeared. In 1906 the first Guizer Jarl (chief guizer) was appointed.

It was only after the First World War that the tradition of the Guizer Jarl having his own squad of Vikings became an annual event. Although money was tight in the 1930s the festival limped through. It was in these poverty stricken times that the 'Bill' poking fun at those in charge became the greatly anticipated proclamation it is today. The BBC filmed the festival in 1949 and it was from this year on, that the previously haphazard timings became the tightly adhered to schedule we see today. Since 1956 there has also been a Junior Jarl's squad.

For more about the modern celebrations see here for a post I've previously written.
You can find the Up Helly Aa website here.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Software for Authors

Word was getting completely unwieldy. 

In the past I've written essays, reports, letters and manuals using Microsoft Word. I even used it to write my Master's dissertation. I've always been happy with it. Then I started trying to write a book. I've never written anything this long before and it was soon getting out of hand. 

My book on the Kungsleden is gathering pace and the word count is creeping up and although this is good, I was beginning to feel very chaotic; scrolling through reams of pages whenever I needed to add or check anything was not leading to a state of authorly tranquility. I knew I needed to find a solution before I went any further.

I asked the Google gods and found that there are generally two choices of software for authors out there. I'm sure there are more, but as I have no knowledge of writing books and so don't really know what I need until I need it, I wanted to choose something mainstream and with good reviews.

Of the two software choices - Scrivener and yWriter5 - the first is pay and the second is free. I didn't particularly want to pay for something until I knew what I really needed and fortunately the freebie yWriter5 seemed to have everything I wanted and I only found good reviews. So without further ado, I decided to give it a go.

It was really easy to install and just as easy to figure out how everything works. I've copy and pasted my book from Word and been able to set each chapter up in its own folder which can then be sub-divided into different scenes. The chapters are listed in a left-hand column and by clicking on a chapter I can bring up a list of scenes. I had briefly considered setting something like this up in Word but soon realised that as every chapter would be a separate document, this would probably be even more unwieldy to use than just one long document. With yWriter5 each chapter is always easily to hand.

Once I've clicked on a chapter, I then have options for adding planning notes, character profiles, locations, goals and a description of the chapter as well as the actual content. Clicking on different lists reveals exactly how many, and in which, chapters each character and location has been mentioned.

I've been using yWriter5 for a couple of weeks now and I'm finding it very intuitive and really user-friendly. As the work on my computer becomes more organised and less chaotic I feel as though the same is happening to my brain. I'm thinking more clearly, noticing errors and repetitions, knowing where more detail is needed, fixing omissions and generally starting to feel like a real writer.

From pictures I've seen of Scrivener, it looks to be a lot fancier and to have even more functions to play around with. As with yWriter5 I've only read good reviews of Scrivener and so would like to have a test run with it to see how the two compare. For now though, I'm very happy with yWriter5 and the way it's working for me.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I'm going to Up Helly Aa!

Up Helly Aa has fascinated me ever since I started visiting Shetland and first heard about it. There are various Up Helly Aa festivals held between January and March in different parts of Shetland, but the main festival, the biggie, the Up Helly Aa to end all Up Helly Aas is held in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. This presented a problem for me as the last Tuesday in January is always smack-bang in the middle of term time. And it's not as though Lerwick is a place I can just nip up to for a few hours in the evening and be back in time to get a good night's sleep ready for school the next morning.

Because of this, I made a pact with myself that the first chance I get I will be there. As I'm not teaching at the moment that chance is now. I've been keeping an eye on the ferries and at this time of year there are a lot of delays and cancellations due to the weather, so I need to plan to arrive a few days in advance just in case. Imagine shelling out all that money and getting really excited just to turn up in Aberdeen the day before the festival to be told the ferry isn't leaving tonight. It's not a risk I'm prepared to take.

I'm going to go up in the van so I have a place to sleep. It's expensive taking a vehicle on the ferry and as I'll be alone I won't have anyone to split the cost with. Add to that the cost of fuel and this isn't going to be a cheap trip. But without the van I'd have to pay for accommodation and would be limited in what I could do as public transport isn't the greatest. I'd also have to add on the cost of train fares to Aberdeen and if I arrived off the train in Aberdeen to find the ferry wasn't leaving I'd be left hunting for last minute accommodation and shelling out again.

I'm wondering if I'm a little mad planning to spend a week sleeping in the back of a van on a small North Atlantic island in January. But, thanks to the Gulf Stream, Shetland doesn't get anywhere near as cold as other places on the same latitude do in winter; there's not a lot of snow and temperatures don't drop much below zero. So I'm sure I'll be fine, but I will take my duvet as well as my winter sleeping bag.

I wrote about Up Helly Aa here