Jarl Squad will invade New York City

The Viking culture of the Shetland Islands will be on display during Tartan Week this April

Jarl Squad

Photo: Malvara / Wikimedia Commons
Members of the Jarl Squad in their Viking attire march along Commercial Street in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, during the Up Helly Aa festival this January.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Can you believe that the Shetland Islands in Scotland hold 12 fire festivals in winter? What does that have to do with Scandinavians? Well, these events celebrate the end of Norse holiday known as Yule.

Lerwick, the main port of the Shetland Islands, has the largest event with up to 1,000 participants.

Like Mardi Gras krewes, locals dress in vibrant uniformity and are here known as squads. However, they mostly don Viking attire. “The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival … will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas he’ll represent,” says Kyle Dawson on the Tartan Week website.

This tradition grew out of an older Ler­wick tradition, tar barreling, which was done on Christmas, New Year’s, and Up Helly (Holy Day). Picture this: flaming barrels filled with tar, precariously perched on sleds, are slid through the streets by competing groups.

Needless to say, flaming barrels and large consumptions of alcohol (after all, it is the holidays) do not mix, and by the 1870s the powers that be put the kibosh on this dazzling tradition. However, they were not entirely Scrooges and agreed to permit lit-torch processions. The first was held in 1876.

With the elimination of the tar barrels, locals began to look at their Viking past. The original people in this country were Pictish, but the Norse, mostly Norwegian, ruled from 800 CE until the end of the 15th century, when Scotland began to claim this country as their own. To this day, their language is heavily peppered with Norse and many of their traditions are also connected to their Scandinavian roots, such as their knitted wool wearables.

Donning Viking warrior garb while brandishing lit torches, each squad has a leader, a Guizer Jarl, a coveted and respected position, as one has to be involved for at least 15 years on the committee that organizes the event before they can hold that position.

“On the stroke of 7:30 p.m., a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall. The torches are lit, the band strikes up, and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl,” writes Dawson.

Heading toward the water with a Viking ship in tow, the various squads sing a song created for the occasion, swaying and singing in concentric golden circles, set against the black night. Then the wooden Viking ship is lit with their torches, culminating with the dragon-headed vessel bursting into a brilliant blaze. When the flames have died, all sing, “The Norseman’s Home.” Afterward, folks party and put on skits and other forms of entertainment. But this is not the end of the festivities. “Hop Night” takes place the next day with dances and more revelry.

Would you be intrigued to see 75 of these hearty Vikings marching down 5th Avenue in New York City? Well you can, as the Jarl Squad of 2019 is headed to New York to participate in Tartan Week, an event held during several days in April that celebrates all things Scottish. The Jarl Squad will be marching in its 21st annual parade, which will be held on April 6. According to Dawson, “what makes this year special is that it will be three different squads from 2007, 2012, and 2019 led by three brothers: Graham Nicolson, 2007 Guizer Jarl; David Nicolson, 2012 Guizer Jarl; and John Nicolson, 2019 Guizer Jarl. Their father, Jim Nicolson, was Guizer Jarl in 1979 and is out 40 years later in his youngest son’s squad.”

If you are in the New York area, come out and welcome our Viking cousins, albeit through Scotland, to New York. Show them your appreciation for all their heart and tenacity in honoring their special islands’ Norse heritage.

This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.