Guizer

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Guizer is the proper word for an actor in a mumming play. In Up Helly Aa terms, it means anyone who dresses up, assumes a mask, and participates in the event.

'Guizing' is an integral part of Up Helly Aa, and dates back to the festivals roots in the 1800's. The concept of guizing had long been a part of the tar barrelling activities associated with the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, with 'Guizer Squads' cleaning themselves up after the evening burning activities and changing into self-made costumes which completely masked the wearer’s identity. Squads would dress up collectively under one theme, although not necessarily with identical costumes, and visit houses around the town where the host and hostess invited guizers to celebrate in their homes and provided refreshments for them. The guizers costumes however, were rarely completed before the night with the result that by the time the squads were ready it was frequently three in the morning or later before the visitations began. There were usually a dozen or so houses open for the guizers and they tried to go to as many as possible. At each house there would also be young women who the squad members would partner in traditional dances without revealing themselves. As the festival grew in popularity with the guizers, houses proved insufficient for their entertainment, and by 1910 halls were being used as well as houses. The Rechabite Hall (Chapel House) and Masonic Hall were the first to be used, with halls being used exclusively by 1928 when a total of 11 were open for the guizers.

It was also tradition in Shetland during the late 1800's (and into the early 1900's on the islands of Yell, Unst and Fetlar), for groups of guizers known as Skeklers to visit houses at Halloween, New Year and other times of celebration throughout the year. Dressed in straw suits and wearing pointed hats that hid their faces, and with a member of the group usually carrying a musical instrument to play, they would arrive unannounced and dance with householders who gave them food and drink in return. The suits were made from oat straw and the traditional 'Skeklers' hat would have lengths of decorative ribbons hanging from its top. The facepiece, which was sewn onto the bottom of the hat, was worn whenever entering a house to hide the 'Skeklers' identity. Similar customs are referred to in 13th century Icelandic Sagas. Guizers dressed as 'Skeklers' are ocassionally seen in modern Up Helly Aa festival squads.

Skeklers on Fetlar 1909.
Photo from Fetlar Museum Website.
Replica of Skeklers Hat.
Photo from Fetlar Museum Website.
1911 Uyeasound Up Helly Aa Squad 'Sailors and Soldiers', also 'skekler' at left.Photo from Shetland Museum.

Early Lerwick Up Helly Aa Guizer Squads.

Lerwick Up Helly Aa Squad from unknown year.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa Squad from 1907.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa Squad from unknown year.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa Squad "Suffragettes" 1909.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa Squad from unknown year.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa Squad from unknown year.

In the modern Up Helly Aa festival around 20 guizers (less in some of the rural festivals), dress collectivly under a single theme forming a squad. The guizers only participate in the evening activities of the festival, which involve the torchlit procession and burning of the galley, followed by visits to halls where they perform their acts into the early hours of the following morning. The number of squads and the number of guizers in each squad varies with the different festivals, the numbers in the 2010 and 2011 festivals are shown below. These include the Jarl's Squad which is usually much larger (up to 50 members), and is not the total number of guizers carrying torches during the evening procession which is always slightly less.

Procession Details

Festval 2011
No. Squads / Guizers
2010
No. Squads / Guizers
Scalloway Fire Festival
12 / ~180
12 / ~180
Lerwick Up Helly Aa
47 / 959
46 / 956
Lerwick Junior Up Helly Aa
17 / 105
15 / 80
Nesting and Girlsta Up Helly Aa
13 / 152
12 / 166
Uyeasound Up Helly Aa
18 / 171
15 / 141
Northmavine Up Helly Aa
16 / ~150
12 / ~150
Cullivoe Up Helly Aa
13 / 152
13 / 141
Bressay Up Helly Aa
8 / ~70
7 / 80
Norwick Up Helly Aa
11 / 105
13 / 116
South Mainland Up Helly Aa
24 / 442
22 / 374
Walls Junior Up Helly Aa
9 / ~40
8 / ~35
Delting Up Helly Aa
29 / ~300
29 ~310

In the evening the squads of guizers muster at a nominated location, usually around 7pm, and are given torches in their prescribed order. After the light-up and torchlit procession they form up around the galley and at a given signal throw their torches into the galley. The front rank of the squads throw first, then retreat to allow the row behind to throw theirs and so on until all the torches have been thrown.

After the galley burning the guizer squads disperse to begin evening festivities where they visit local halls to show off their costumes, sing songs and usually perform satirical acts, which may be based on local topical news events. Musicians are in every hall, but each squad may also have musicians of their own who join in with the resident bands and play for the inevitable dancing. Younger men, usually sons of squad members, who carry the musical instruments are known as "fiddle-box carriers". After each squad of guizers have performed their act they partner guests at the halls in traditional dances.

The quizer squads preparations usually begin many months before the Up Helly Aa and each guizer squads' theme and costumes are different in each festival, although some may be similar. Considerable time, effort and cost is also usually spent on the years costume/s and acts the squad perform in the halls.

In Lerwick the guizers are all men, while all the other festivals allow women into all the squads. A popular guizing theme in the Lerwick festival involves dressing as women (the sale of fake breasts prior to the event soaring considerably as a consequence!), and has coined the phrase 'Transvestite Tuesday' (in a humourous, non-malicious manner), for the Lerwick Up Helly Aa.

Photos of guizers from some of the recent Up Helly Aa festivals.

2011 South Mainland Guizers.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Lerwick Guizer in Procession.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Uyeasound Guizers waiting for light up.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Scalloway Guizer - fish box attached to motorbike helmet!
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Uyeasound Guizers.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2010 South Mainland Squad "Yellow Fever".
Photo by Jeannie.
2011 Uyeasound Guizers.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Northmavine Guizer.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Uyeasound Guizers.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 South Mainland Guizers.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Delting Guizers.
Photo by Kozetland1.
2011 Delting Guizers.
Photo by Kozetland1.

A collection of recent years Lerwick Guizer Squad photos can be found on the official Lerwick Up Helly Aa website.


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