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Viking festival Jarl Squad includes female participants for first time

The key element in a Viking festival has embraced female participants for the first time.

Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, Shetland, began in the 1880s but it only allowed women and girls to join the Jarl Squad and lead the torchlight procession for the first time in 2024.

More than 1,000 torches are lit on the last Tuesday in January as two processions, one in the morning and a second in the evening, take place.

Up Helly Aa festival
Members of the Jarl Squad marching through Lerwick for Up Helly Aa (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Jenna Moar, 16, is one of the first female participants of this year’s Jarl Squad, and her father Richard Moar, 47, is the chief jarl.

Jen and Richard Moar
Jarl Squad member Jen Moar alongside her father, Guizer Jarl Richard (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The organisation is run by a voluntary committee of 17 members, each selected by the guizers – or costumed participants – with one new member elected each year.

The members don Viking-style clothing for the event, which celebrates Shetland’s Norse heritage.

Up Helly Aa festival
Guizer Jarl Richard Moar leads the procession through Lerwick (Andrew Milligan/PA)

In 1949, the festival became a highly organised event for the first time, after years of ad-hoc celebrations.

Guizer Jarl Mr Moar has been involved in the festival since 1990, with his first taste of guizing that year as a fiddlebox carrier.

Up Helly Aa festival
The Jarl Squad after marching through the town (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Three of his nieces are also involved in the Jarl Squad.

At 7.30pm, fireworks will be set off to signal the lighting of torches.

An imitation Viking boat, named the Galley, along with Guizer Jarl’s squad and a brass band will lead a procession, with 46 other squads in fancy dress behind them.