Prepare to be nithered ...

Shetlanders defy the dark at Up Helly Aa
Shetlanders defy the dark at Up Helly Aa

Written by Heather Elvidge

Last week’s easterly winds bring to mind an old saying: “When the wind is in the east, ‘tis neither good for man nor beast.”

After that relatively mild spell, we had to revert to hats, boots and even sledges. Meteorologists say it’s due to a sudden disturbance in the atmosphere above the Arctic, a 
phenomenon called sudden stratospheric warming. This has forced cold air down into northern Europe and its influence on our weather could last for weeks.

While milder Atlantic air will probably push in from time to time, we should be prepared for more swings from normal to nithering.

The old weather lore is quite content with this kind of weather. “If grass do grow in Janiveer, ‘twill grow the worse for all the year.” It’s good news then that the grass is unlikely to grow under its blanket of snow.

While cloudy nights are usually milder, they’ve hovered around freezing too. Clear nights have been cold enough for rime frost to form, creating a magical landscape of trees and shrubs sprinkled in icing sugar.

According to psychologists, this month is the most depressing of the year. Plenty would argue with that, though it has to be admitted that January is not the jolliest of months.

In the past, visiting customs kept communities together especially in the far north. Shetland still has several fire festivals, the largest of which is at Lerwick.

Until 1469, the islands were under Scandinavian rule and Shetlanders are proud of their heritage. So in October the people of Lerwick begin to build a Viking galley, and on the last Tuesday in January they send it off in a blaze of glory at Up Helly Aa.

At night thousands gather as the street lights go out, and hundreds of torches are lit. The Guizer Jarl and his squad, wearing elaborate costumes, haul the galley through the streets to a walled park, where it’s set alight. Then halls are opened for dancing, and the celebrations continue until 4am.

Red-letter day

January 25 is a busy day in the calendar. Christians remember St Paul’s conversion to the faith, which set him on his mission to the gentiles. Since 1801 the Scots have celebrated Robert Burns with a haggis supper followed by readings of his poems and best-loved songs, ending with Auld Lang Syne. In Wales it’s the feast day of St Dwynwen, a 5th-century nun on Anglesey who became the patron of Welsh lovers.

Meanwhile, devotees of old lore will be watching the skies, because the 25th is a forecasting day.

St Paul’s Day has attracted some bold sayings. A fine day promises a good year, especially for the harvest. But rain or snow warns of poor weather in those months, and a cloudy or misty day tells of “pestilences” among livestock. Strong winds are the worst omen, foretelling war.

The wildest notion is that the hours of St Paul’s Day, from 6am to 6pm, reflect the months to come. They can’t do that. But it shows the significance of the day to our forebears, that such an idea should be linked to it.