CAMPAIGNERS for female equality at the world famous Lerwick Viking festival are being subjected to vitriolic online abuse, it is claimed.

Attacks have been increasing as the calls for women to be included in Up Helly Aa are getting more media attention – with the backlash intensifying in recent weeks, according to campaigners.

“There has been a ratcheting up of online abuse and it is quite serious,” said Zara Pennington-Smith. “I am on the national committee for Women for Independence and we try to empower women to take part in civic life but women here who are trying to engage in a local civic issue are getting abuse. It is cutting down conversation.”

She said some of the most offensive comments had now been taken down from sites but ones remaining include “take your Marxism and get out” and “can yun (sic) wife not find a fecking hobby to amuse herself with”.

While Lerwick’s event is the largest and most famous Up Helly Aa, there are others elsewhere on Shetland, some of which include women.

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Established more than 100 years ago, Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa sees more than 1000 men dressed as Vikings and carrying flaming torches march through the streets before burning replicas of a Viking galley. The mid-winter celebration then continues well into the night at various halls in the town where women provide the food. The procession has been men only since its inception and women who applied to be part of this year’s festival were refused.

David Nicolson, who led the procession as Jarl in 2012, said the festival worked well as it was, so there was no need to change it.

“I know how much the women behind the scenes do,” he said. “Dressmakers that do all the sewing and embroidery – they love what they do and they see it as their part to play. There is no way they are being discriminated against.”

He added: “I think some traditions are changed for change’s sake.”

However the push for equality is gaining traction even though the 100-strong Shetland for Up Helly Aa Equality Group is forced to communicate through a closed Facebook page because of the abuse, according to one of the organisers Sally Huband.

She said members had to protect themselves after experiencing abuse when they had spoken out.

“We are not asking for 50:50 male to female ratios in squads but we would like to see the Lerwick UHA committee give directions to squads, to let squads know that there is nothing to stop them from including female members as spaces become available,” Huband said.

Another group member, Lucy Simpson, whose mother Lesley became the first female Jarl at the South Mainland Up Helly Aa in 2015, said she had been brought to the verge of tears when she was just 15-years-old by comments after she had spoken out during a public meeting.

“It is causing people to not speak out due to fear of dampening their reputation, which is all too important to some,” she said.

Simpson said she believed large numbers of women and girls take part if they could “but are maybe too afraid to be the first” because of what people would say.

SNP MSP Maree Todd said she was sorry to hear individuals were facing online abuse. “That is inexcusable,” she said. “This issue has been raised with me a number of times over the last few years, with views expressed from both sides of the debate.

“There is no strong reason to exclude women and girls from the festival. Lerwick Up Helly Aa being men only probably reflects its Victorian roots more than anything. Interestingly, women and girls are welcome participants at all the fire festivals in Shetland except Lerwick’s.”