Women can be warriors too.

In Scotland's remote Shetland Islands, hundreds of men will next week adorn themselves in Viking attire, armed with blazing torches, and march through the main town of Lerwick.

It's one of the biggest events on the Shetland calendar - the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival, celebrating the islands' Norse heritage.

Held on the final Tuesday of January each year, the festival involves a series of passionate marches and a fire torch procession culminating in the public burning of a Viking longboat. Organisers spend months each year working on every part of the festival, which dates back to 1876.

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But there's been a storm brewing in recent years over the Lerwick event, which has been excluding women from participating.

According to Conde Naste Traveler, a group of women attempted to register a squad to participate in the Lerwick festival in 2018, but were told they were not welcome and were prevented from registering. The same thing happened last year.

Campaigners fighting for gender equality tried to take the matter to local authorities, claiming public resources were being used on an event which discriminates against women and girls.

But the Shetland Islands Council ruled there was no breach of equality law.

The Guiser Jarls, including Lesley Simpson, of the South Mainland Up Helly Aa. Photo / Supplied, via the South Mainland Up Helly Aa
The Guiser Jarls, including Lesley Simpson, of the South Mainland Up Helly Aa. Photo / Supplied, via the South Mainland Up Helly Aa

At the time, its chief executive said it was well aware of the "strong feelings across the community about the involvement of women and girls in Shetland's largest fire festival."

"It is not for Shetland Islands Council to pass judgement on how other organisations run their own business, but I did want to be assured that, as an organisation, the Council acts and behaves appropriately in this respect," she said.

Sally Huband, leader of the Up Helly Aa for Aa group, told the Scotsman last year they could no longer sweep the issue under the carpet.


"The fact remains there are females in Shetland who wish to participate but who are being prevented from doing so solely because they are women or girls."

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Some locals argue the male-only tradition has always existed and therefore shouldn't be changed.

Guisers in Viking costumes take part in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa festival. Photo / Danny Lawson, Getty Images
Guisers in Viking costumes take part in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa festival. Photo / Danny Lawson, Getty Images

But the so called 'tradition' may be out of step with reality anyway.

Recent research has uncovered evidence of female viking warriors, the most notable case published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2017.

A grave in Sweden filled with swords, arrowheads and two sacrificed horses was long believed to be that of a warrior male - until DNA analysis of the bones confirmed the grave was for a woman. Norse sagas also feature prominent women.

Researchers also discovered last year what they thought was the first evidence of a Viking woman with a battle injury, based on a dent on a skull excavated from a grave in Norway. She too was buried with a set of weapons and a shield, but the assumption was that she was not a warrior.

Passing on the torch: In 2015, Lesley congratulated Jamie Laurenson who will be Jarl for 2020. Photo / South Mainland Up Helly Aa, via Facebook
Passing on the torch: In 2015, Lesley congratulated Jamie Laurenson who will be Jarl for 2020. Photo / South Mainland Up Helly Aa, via Facebook

Human remains specialist Ella Al-Shamahi, who made the find, told Newsweek you could never be sure what the cause of injury is.

"But if that injury was found on a male skeleton in a grave with those kinds of weapons in that kind of prominent position on the landscape—a telltale sign of an important Viking—the very first theory that would be put forward is that it is a battle injury," said Al-Shamahi.

"Yet there are people doubting she's even a warrior."

There are twelve Up Helly Aa fire festivals which take place across Shetland during the winter months, and most of them not only allow women to participate, but also to lead the parade.

But the Lerwick event doesn't want to budge.

Letters to the Shetland News are continuing to rage on both sides of the argument, as Tuesday's festival looks set to go ahead, so too will the argument for female "guisers".

Viking warriors were never known to back down from a fight.

How to choose a Guiser Jarl


The festival of Up Helly Aa happens across the Shetland Islands and is fair to say it is a highlight of the year. It takes almost all year to prepare the costumes and many more preparing a choice of Guiser Jarl.

The Guiser Jarl is the head of the Up Helly Aa parade who leads the parade and traditional burning of the Viking longboat.

The costumed viking is a character unique to Shetland who appears to have come straight from Valhalla.

There are almost as many Helly Aa processions as there are towns on Shetland and each chooses a Jarl. Even primary schools and scout groups have their own. However, the most famous by far is in Lerwick.

Even schools and youth clubs have their own Up Helly Aa parades. Photo / Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images
Even schools and youth clubs have their own Up Helly Aa parades. Photo / Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

The Jarl is chosen from the locals to head the festivity well in advance. This could be five years or more.

There are many qualities one looks for in a Guiser Jarl: Endurance, for a 24 hour marathon; A sense of humour, and the ability to pull of an outlandish costume inspired by Norse legend.

It might not be apparent, but the term "Guiser" comes from the Scots for "disguiser." Dressing up is a big part of the event.

Lesley Simpson the first female Guiser Jarl. Photo / Supplied, Shetland Heritage Association
Lesley Simpson the first female Guiser Jarl. Photo / Supplied, Shetland Heritage Association

Lastly a good Jarl needs a fair 'bit of heft' to lug around a costume. The helmet itself weighs up to a couple of kilograms, and the Jarl must be dressed and ready to lead his squad from for almost 24 hours, starting at 6am to the small hours of the morning.

As for the big, bushy Viking-esque beard? It's purely optional.

In 2015, Lesley Simpson became the first woman Jarl. She led a group of mixed-sex warriors in the South Mainland Up Helly Aa.

The primary school teacher is the first recorded female Jarl since recorded history of the festival, 130 years ago.

"It has been a long build up, five years of knowing that this was going to happen, five years of people talking to me about it and wishing me the best with it," she told BBC Shetland about the support she received.