Where: Lerwick, Shetland
£: Anyone can view the morning marches and the evening procession. Spectators may watch from the pavements alongside the roads, no tickets are required.
What is it?
Up Helly Aa in Lerwick is Europe’s largest fire festival and has been an annual tradition since around the 1880s. The festival features fire-lit processions, a Viking longboat burning, as well as dancing and singing.
The emergence of Yuletide and New Year festivities in Lerwick came some time after the Napoleonic Wars, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms. As Lerwick grew in size, the celebrations became more elaborate and in the 1840s participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings.
The main street of Lerwick in the mid-19th century was extremely narrow, and rival groups of tar- barrelers frequently clashed in the middle. The proceedings were dangerous and dirty, so the Town Council began to appoint special constables every Christmas to control the revellers with only limited success.
In around 1870 a series of new ideas and the improvised name Up Helly A’ were introduced into the proceedings. The celebrations changed to the end of January and a far more elaborate element of disguise – “Guizing” – was added into the new festival. A torchlight procession and Viking themes began to be introduced to the town’s festival. In the late 1880s a Viking longboat – the “galley” – appeared. In 1906 the “Guizer Jarl”, or chief Guizer, arrived on the scene. Then after the First World War there was a squad of Vikings, known as the “Guizer Jarl Squad” added to the procession.
Today the numbers participating in the festival have become much greater, and the resources required correspondingly larger. Whereas in the 19th century individuals kept an open house to welcome the Guizers on Up Helly A’ night; men and women now gather in the halls throughout the town to entertain the locals. However, despite the changes there are numerous threads connecting the Up Helly Aa of today with its predecessors 150 years ago.
The processions are now world-famous and the Guizer Jarl, the leader of the squad, is usually dressed in the finest Viking armour. His squad are made up of around 50 men who dress up in Viking suits complete with armour. The squad make their own suits for the procession as well as the accompanying weapons such as axes, swords, spears, daggers, bows and crossbows! The replica boat is made by local tradesmen and is painted to match the Jarl Squad’s suits. Over 1000 torches are made for these processions. It’s a sight not to be missed.
This year’s procession will light up at 7.30pm on the Hillhead (below the Town Hall) and proceed through the town to the site where the galley (replica longboat) is then burnt. Following the procession the squads head to the halls for dancing and merriment.
More info: For more details about this year’s event including a procession route map, please visit www.uphellyaa.org