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This past summer, I visited Liechtenstein and declared it one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. But after visiting Shetland, I chucked that theory out the window.
Liechtenstein is delightfully quirky — the Zooey Deschanel of principalities. Shetland, by comparison, is Bjork laying an egg on the red carpet.
I had the time of my life visiting Shetland for the first time this winter with Haggis Adventures, and I quickly fell under the islands’ spell. Shetland was raw and remote and absolutely beautiful — and also, really f*cking weird.
It starts with Shetland’s individuality. Shetlanders consider themselves their own people — you better not call a Shetlander Scottish! Shetland isn’t making motions for independence from Britain, but you can easily tell that being British is a secondary consideration.
Shetland isn’t too far from Norway, and because of that, you see a Scandinavian influence in much of the architecture. And the accents! They are SO hard to decipher! When we were getting our crash course on Viking culture, I think most of the people in our group were simply nodding — it’s that tough to understand the accent.
Up Helly Aa is more than just a festival. Shetland revolves around this event! Men are chosen to be the jarl, or head Viking, several years in advance, and they prepare by growing out their beards. The galley is built carefully and beautifully, and it takes a full year to build.
Likewise, the 50 squads spend time choosing a theme, choreographing routines, and finding the perfect costumes. None of the efforts were half-assed, and I appreciated that.
The funny thing is that Shetlanders prepare for Up Helly Aa with the utmost seriousness — but the festival itself is anything but serious. The Vikings laugh and cheer and yell “YARRRR!” through all the events. Oh, and most of them stay up and drink for 24-48 hours straight, pulling two all-nighters in a row.
It was best said as we were about to leave Shetland: our guides, Tony and Dougie, were walking through town when they passed two Shetlanders still awake, still drunk, and still in costume. “Happy Up Helly Aa, ya couple of pricks,” one of them said with a grin.
(And yes, “Ya couple of pricks!” became our group’s catchphrase for the rest of the trip.)
One thing I love about Shetland is that it’s completely lacking in pretension. But sometimes, even that goes a bit too far.
All over town, signs are missing their letters. Dougie remarked to me that one of the signs in the center of town had been missing letters for years and nobody had done anything about it.
Shetland is not an ethnically diverse place — I didn’t see a single person of color the whole time I was there. That’s to be expected, as it’s so isolated.
But when one of the squads came out in full blackface at the after-party, my jaw dropped — and the Shetlanders in the room seemed unfazed.
The squad performed as a Caribbean band. They did some great drumming. But blackface — how did that add any value whatsoever? Was it really necessary to wear blackface to prove you were Caribbean, on top of wearing ruffled Caribbean shirts?
I guess when you grow up in a place where everyone is white, you develop less of an awareness of racial insensitivity. Or maybe I’m overreacting, and blackface doesn’t have the same stigma in other places than it does in the US.
What do YOU think?
Up Helly Aa is a men’s festival and always has been. From the Vikings to the galleymakers to the costumed performing squads, there isn’t a single woman involved. The children’s Up Helly Aa is entirely made up of boys.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Shetland is surprisingly gender segregated.
Whenever we went out, there were never any local women in the bars (excepting the occasional bartender). There were plenty of Shetland men, and plenty of out-of-towners, but no Shetland women.
But the gender segregation hit home when I chatted with Shetland men and always got one of two reactions:
1) From most men over 25: polite ignorance. When I talked to these men, they would nod or respond briefly if I asked a question, then they would turn away.
2) From most men under 25: juvenile antics. Some of the younger guys would actually throw things at the girls in our group, shout goofy things, or just sit and stare googly-eyed. When they asked me to dance, unlike their Scottish counterparts, they would squeeze me way too tightly, like a thirteen-year-old at his first dance.
While I see young men and women hang out together as friends in most of Europe, I didn’t see any of that friendly interaction between the young men and women in Shetland.
The Overall Takeaway
I want to make it clear that when I say “weird,” I mean it in a very positive way. I love seeing places that show me something I’ve never seen before. While some things about Shetland are not perfect, I grew to adore its spirit and unique culture. Weird is good, and on those terms, Shetland is fantastic.