Blackface 'will not be tolerated' at Up Helly Aa festival

By Daniel Bennett
BBC Scotland

  • Published
Up Helly AaImage source, AFP
Image caption,
A Viking galley is burned as part of the annual event

The organisers of Shetland's main Up Helly Aa festival have said the use of blackface "will not be tolerated".

The committee which runs the Lerwick event said there was "no place" for racism amid growing calls for a ban.

One island resident had asked festivals across Shetland to take action in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The events in Bressay and Delting have both introduced a ban and the Cullivoe festival said its use was "particularly offensive" and not welcome.

A number of villages around Shetland stage their own festivals each winter, with the largest taking place in Lerwick every January.

'A thing of the past'

The committee which organises that event said: "We are committed to ensuring that racism has no place in Up Helly Aa and can confirm that the use of blackface will not be tolerated.

"The committee will discuss this further, when we can meet, and communicate with our members."

Ellie Ratter, from Brae, had written to the festivals across Shetland asking them to formally ban squads from using blackface in their acts.

The 20-year-old took action after photographs showing its use had been posted online in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

That call was backed by Shetland Lib Dem MSP Beatrice Wishart, who said: "Seeing blacked-up faces at some local events needs to be a thing of the past."

Image source, Getty Images

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant and Green MSP John Finnie both added their voices to the campaign.

Mr Finnie has lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for an end to the practice.

He said it was likely that no malice was intended, but that the use of blackface at a major community event excludes Shetland's black, Asian and minority ethnic residents and visitors.

Mrs Grant said: "I totally support a change and the banning of using blackface in the future.

"The Black Lives Matter movement has made people scrutinise behaviour close to home and I agree with that, as I was worried people would point fingers at the USA, while racism happens in every part of society here.

"That the people in Shetland are now looking at this and fighting for change is an example to every community to do the same."

The Up Helly Aa festivals remember the Vikings who used to rule the Shetland islands 1,000 years ago.

Squads of warriors parade through the streets by torchlight before the day culminates with the dramatic burning of a replica Viking long ship.