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Shetland's Viking Fire Festival - Up Helly Aa


All lights are extinguished and the streets are lit only by the glow from a thousand marching torches. It is a truly awesome sight. They circle the looming shape of a boat and the sky is full of flaming arrows arching into the wooden hull. The fire catches, slowly at first and then, with a rush of sudden flames, the dragon's head prow of a Viking longship is revealed, silhouetted in flame, against the sky. A bearded Viking warrior, brandishing a battle axe, steps forward to stand in front of two thousand years of history. His name is Jim Coutts and he is leading Shetlands annual re-enactment of the ancient pagan festival of Up-Helly-Aa.

Up Helly Aa - Viking Fire Festival

The Guizer Jarl and his galley
© Hugh Taylor

Although this is a relatively modern festival it is rooted in history and ancient Norse mythology. When Christianity came to Shetland, 800 years of Norse culture was not easily submerged. The pagan festival of Yule became Christmas but on the 24th night after, Shetlanders reverted to their pagan past and celebrated Uphalliday - the ending of the holidays. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1751 Shetland continued to celebrate Christmas on 6th January and Up-Helly-Aa at the end of January. Norsemen had traditionally celebrated the end of Yuletide and the end of winter with feasting, drinking and ritual fires. The early celebrations consisted of guizers dragging burning tar barrels through the streets of Lerwick to a bonfire, accompanied by rousing songs, music and drinking. This inevitably led to disorder and the eventual banning of tar barrelling in the 1870s. It re-emerged in 1881 when the first torch light procession took place. Fire had always played an important role in the funeral rites of viking chieftains; the body would be ceremoniously placed in a longship which was then set alight and cast adrift. This tradition was gradually incorporated into the Up-Helly-Aa celebrations. The guizers took to wearing viking dress and were led by the Jarl or Earl to the ritual burning of the longship. Following the burning the guizers would tour houses in Lerwick singing, dancing and feasting.


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Travel Essentials:

Up-Helly-Aa is held on the last Tuesday in January. In 2012 this is Tuesday 31st January and as usual " There will be no postponement for weather ".

Comprehensive information on Shetland is available from Visit Shetland





Nowadays, Up-Helly-Aa starts in the early hours of the morning when a ten foot high, elaborately decorated proclamation is placed at the Market Cross. This contains lots of local humour and gossip for the year. At 10.00 am the public get their first view of the galley as the Jarl squad escort it through the town to the harbour where it remains on display for the rest of the day. The Jarl Squad then march through the narrow flag-stoned streets to the Market Cross, then on to the sandstone turreted town hall where the Raven Banner of the Guizer Jarl is flying and the Jarl is granted the freedom of Lerwick for the day.

It's not until darkness falls and every light is switched off that the main celebrations begin. By 7 o'clock 1000 men with unlit torches are lining both sides of the road below the Town Hall. The guizers are assembled in forty seven squads in fancy dress. One squad, inspired by the film Braveheart, sport kilts and ubiquitous blue and white face paints. Amongst them is Hagar the Handsome, a man with a red beard, Viking helmet, sword and a shield emblazoned with the town crest of the Ayrshire coastal town of Largs. Although he has just arrived from the mainland, he has lived previously in Lerwick - there's a five year residency qualification to march at Up-Helly-Aa. Bang on 7.30pm a signal rocket is fired over the town hall. Few sights can compare with the river of fire flowing down the dark street as the torches are lit and the Jarl squad drags the doomed galley, carrying the Jarl like a long-dead viking ruler in his funeral procession. The band strikes up and the noisy raucous progress of music and singing snakes through the town until, half an hour later, it comes to the burning site. Lerwick's Norse history is reflected in the names of the streets along the route. King Harald, Prince Alfred, St Olaf and finally King Erik street where the guizers circle the galley in a huge swirling Catherine Wheel of fire.

The Jarl leaves the ship as the guizers sing The Galley Song, a bugle sounds and the torches are hurled into the galley. As it burns the crowds sing The Norseman's Home to conclude the ceremony.

The whole town of Lerwick, including returned exiles and tourists, is gathered around the burning ship until gradually they drift off to the parties which will continue until daybreak.

Most of the parties are private and invitations are as scarce as hens' teeth but for visitors there are a couple of halls where tickets are on sale to the public. During the night each squad will visit every hall, perform a sketch, dance with the ladies and have a few refreshments. Maurice Mullay and his squad appear, dressed as pink fairies, and do a hilarious version of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tsaichovsky's Nutcracker. By 8.30am it's all over, everyone goes home to bed, and for the rest of the day Lerwick's a ghost town. Fortunately it's a public holiday but by the evening a few hardy souls are back out dancing at The Guizers Hop.

As soon as one festival ends preparations start for the next. Jarl squad uniforms take a full year to make and use 19,000 rivets. Squad members become tailors, metalworkers, blacksmiths, joiners and armourers as everything, including the crossbows for the Jarl's bodyguard, is produced in the squad shed. In the Galley shed work doesn't start in earnest until October when the builders, led by Brian Hunter, spend two nights a week preparing the ornately decorated longship. Great attention is paid to detail right down to the teeth for the dragons head.

The design, a 30 foot waterline model built in the traditional Shetland style, has changed little since 1949. In the final weeks the Torch squad convert several hundredweights of timber, sacking and cement into the torches which they then steep in paraffin.

On his way home The Jarl stops at the burning site to survey the smouldering remains of his longship. Already his successor is looking to the year ahead and soon the preparations for next year's festival will begin. As a member of the Up-Helly-Aa Committee, he’s been preparing, and saving, to be the Guizer Jarl for fifteen years. Now it's over, but the exhilaration of being in the galley at the head of the procession is a memory that will remain with him for the rest of his life.



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