Winged helmets, fur-trimmed tunics, flaming torches and rousing music – the people of Shetland are certainly a fiery lot and know how to throw a party. I sincerely doubt that anyone, even the locals of the windswept Shetland Islands, would call January a bleak month for that very reason.
Taking place annually on the last Tuesday of January in the town of Lerwick, the Shetland’s Viking Fire Festival, or Up Helly Aa as it’s known locally, is the largest event of its kind in Europe. Thousands of visitors from across the world travel to this northernmost corner of Scotland to join in this Scandinavian Vikings’ style celebrations of the end of winter and the return of the sun.
This isn’t your usual subarctic merrymaking, nor is it just another bonfire to lighten up the long, dark winter sky. The islanders stage their annual festival to commemorate the Vikings who once occupied and ruled this land over a thousand years ago for around 500 years before it became a part of Scotland in 1468.
Expect to see a crowd of the latest generation of ‘Vikings’ dressed in sheepskins, carrying axes and shields, and bearing torches as they snake through the town streets to the rousing music of traditional Up Helly Aa songs struck up by a brass band. Headed by the Jarl Squad, the parade’s leading group, the procession pulls behind a lovingly made, life-size replica of a traditional Viking longboat, complete with its dragon’s head prow, to the burning site where it’s later set aflame by fiery torches hurled into its hull and left ablaze on the water. Then, as the galley is being destroyed by the inferno, the crowds sings The Norseman’s Home – a stirring requiem that can break the heart of even the hardiest of Vikings, bringing tears to the eyes, after which the guizers and spectators disperse to local halls to dance the night away.
It’ll be a fast and furious night, that I can tell you for sure. The event is a visual feast like none other and makes even the carousing of Guy Fawkes Night seem a bit tame. Nothing has yet managed to stop the Up Helly Aa’s guizers from celebrating – including gales, heavy rains and even snow – and this year should be no different.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa
Last Tuesday of January (28th January 2014)
Rural Shetland Up Helly Aas
If you’ve only just learned about this fantastic festival and are travelling to Shetland later in the year, don’t worry – the months of February and March will see plenty of smaller fire festivals throughout the islands. They may vary slightly in custom, but all embrace the islands’ Viking past and involve setting Viking longships on fire.
- Nesting & Girlsta Up Helly Aa – 10 days after Lerwick festival (7th February 2014)
- Uyeasound Up Helly Aa – Second Friday of February (14th February 2014)
- Northmavine Up Helly Aa – Third Friday of February (21st February 2014)
- Bressay Up Helly Aa – Last Friday of February (28th February 2014)
- Cullivoe Up Helly Aa – Last Friday of February (28th February 2014)
- Norwick Up Helly Aa – First Saturday of March (1st March 2014)
- South Mainland Up Helly Aa – Second Friday of March (14th March 2014)
- Delting Up Helly Aa – Third Friday of March (21st March 2014)
If you’ve ever, like me, dreamt of time travelling and wondered what it would be like to slip through time just for a day or so, now is your chance. Pack your warmest attire and a torch light, and jump on a plane or ferry to Shetland where a wild, 24-hour partying marathon and loads of #brilliantmoments awaits you in the company of definitely more friendly than fierce 21st century Vikings.
Learn more about Shetland’s Nordic heritage, the islands’ fascinating history and the sheer variety of the region’s archaeological sites. Getting to and around Shetland is easier that you can imagine and there’s a great choice of accommodation to suite every budget and taste.
A member of the Uyeasound Jarl Squad,
The night time procession of Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, Shetland
The night time procession of Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, Shetland
The origin of the name ‘Up Helly Aa’ is uncertain, but we think it refers to a celebration of the last day of Christmas festivities: a day of fire, feasting and fun.
The festival’s roots date back to the early 1800s. Groups of young men in disguise would drag barrels of lighted tar on sledges through the streets of the islands’ capital, Lerwick. Burning tar often spilled as the men tried to navigate sledges along the narrow streets, causing damage to properties.
Tar-barrelling was banned in 1874 in an attempt to stop such practices. The young men refined their activities, resulting in the first Up Helly Aa torchlight procession in 1881.
Jarl Squad walking through Lerwick during 1955 Up Helly Aa festival. Licensed by Scran
Other elements have been added to the festival over the years, becoming an integral part of the Up Helly Aa traditions celebrated today. Some of these elements incorporate Norse traditions and celebrate Shetland’s Viking heritage.
Listen to Kitty Laurenson from Delting on the Shetland mainland discuss the origins of Up Helly Aa in a recording from 1961.
Up Helly Aa
Up Helly Aa festivals are also organised in areas outwith Lerwick. These are referred to as ‘country Up Helly Aas’.
Although smaller in size than the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, they are nonetheless very impressive. For many people in Shetland, the Up Helly Aa festivals are the highlight of the year. Participating communities spend hundreds of hours planning and organising them.
The Jarl Squad surrounds the Viking long-ship during the South Mainland Up Helly Aa in 2014. © Kevin Osborn
On the day of an Up Helly Aa festival, squads gather together for the torchlight procession, marching through the streets while carrying wooden posts topped with paraffin-soaked sacking. Each squad is dressed in themed costumes and they are referred to as guizers.
The central figure in the proceedings is the Guizer Jarl, the chief guizer and leader of the Jarl Squad. This squad is made up of the Jarl’s supporters and is the lead squad for the event. Each year the Jarl takes the name of a character from the Norse Sagas and there is great secrecy surrounding both the name and the costume he will don.
The Guizer Jarl in front of the burning Viking long-ship © Kevin Osborn
The procession culminates in the burning of a replica Viking long-ship. The guizers gather round the vessel to sing the traditional ‘Galley Song’ before throwing their torches onto it. Once it has burned the guizers sing ‘The Norseman’s Home’ before visiting local halls where each squad performs an act or skit of some sort, usually of a humorous nature, and where drinking and dancing are the order of the night.
The Viking long-ship is set alight © Kevin Osborn
The Norseman’s Home
This is an extract of a recording of guizers singing ‘The Norseman’s Home’, which was recorded at the Lerwick Up Helly Aa in 1982.
The Lerwick Up Helly Aa takes place on the last Tuesday in January every year. It is a spectacular sight so if you ever get the chance to go, we’d highly recommend it. The following day is known as ‘Hop Night’, when further dances and celebrations are held.
If not, don’t worry. The country Up Helly Aas take place between the middle of January and the end of March.
This guest post was written by Elsie Maclean, Tobar an Dualchais, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Isle of Skye, Scotland.
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