Few years ago when James and I worked on the early drafts and illustrations of TLV and really started getting into the Viking vibe, it seemed that James was most interested in the Norse myths and legends, whereas I had more a feeling for their history. James started amusing me, and no doubt small children, with his colourful tales of what the Norse gods were really like. The gods in our two Viking books are much more tame and civilized than the historical ones, though as I said before, James’ Fafnir the Dragon is a right piece of work.
While James sharpened his crayons, I headed to Scotland on holiday with my good friend Allen Newton and decided to add on a week staying on the Shetland Islands. The islands are famous for Jarlshoff Viking ruins, a terrific Viking museum, Viking boat races and most of all, the annual Up-Helly-Aa Viking Festival held every January in the capital, Lerwick. I imagined I’d come away fired up with new found Norse passion.
The Up-Helly-Aa festival is actually a year-long event with the locals spending eleven months constructing a full-size Longship, recreating Viking costumes and weapons and growing authentic looking beards.
Then, at the coldest month of the year, they drag the ship though the streets of Lerwick to the local park where they ceremoniously set it alight, dance round the flames with much “merriment” and have a party that lasts for four days. With the amount of “merriment” it is said they put away, I imagine a few more days might be missing from the working week as well.
With January that far north not really being an option (brrrr), Allen and I planned to be in the Shetlands at the end of August so we could see the thousands of puffins that colonise the cliffs near Sumburgh Lighthouse, the southernmost tip of the islands, so we sadly missed the festival by months. Even sadder than that, as far as Allen was concerned, on the day before we arrived, the final puffin flew off south for the winter, according the lighthouse keeper (“you should have been here yesterday”), so we missed them as well. All that way. It was actually a 12-hour overnight ferry crossing in a Force 9 gale.
The redeeming feature in this story is that while we there exploring the islands, the weather wasn’t too bad, in a Northern Hemisphere kind of way. The Shetland Islands are notorious for abysmal weather, with snow, sleet, rain, hail, and hurricane force winds all arriving at the same time, and as the islands are little more than grass-covered, barren rocks sticking out of the remote North Sea, shelter from the weather for the thousands of hardy Shetland ponies that inhabit the place is limited.
The Vikings chopped all the trees down a thousand years ago so little natural shelter is available other than the thousands of ruined stone cottages and dry stone walls.
The locals, too, are famous for their grit and hard living, surviving over the centuries on fishing and collecting peat bog. In recent years, though, with Lerwick being used as a base by North Sea oil rig tenders, the economy has boomed beyond belief, and heated swimming pools, sports centres, wide roads and good schools have become a feature in almost every tiny village.
Until Allen and I went there, I had not met anyone who had visited the Shetlands, but since coming back, I have found that two of my friends have done so in recent years. First was the lovely Amanda Curtin, the extremely polished writer of The Sinkings, a haunting novel set in Albany, and the equally moving and atmospheric, Elemental, published last year, and which is set in Fremantle but starts in the Shetlands, where she did a lot of research.
The other friend is John Cusack, an internationally renowned architect, who has traveled all over the world on building projects, including one in the Shetlands. John was lucky enough to be there on a recent January and took these fabulous photos of the Up-Helly-Aa Festival, and kindly shared them with me. John is also lucky enough to be the partner of the famous, award-winning creator Wendy Binks, mother of Stripy the Emu and owner of the fabulous Stunned Emu galley on the Cappuccino Strip in Fremantle.
And did I come back fired up with a new sense of Norse passion? You bet! The funny thing is that James came back from holiday all fired up as well, except he had been in India. Perhaps it was the influence of the Bollywood pop group, The Bombay Vikings that did it and why the The Last Viking Returns is looking do fabulous? (In an Indian/Viking sort of way?)