From January to March, the Shetland Islands come alive with a whole host of Viking themed fire festivals, known as Up Helly Aa.
These celebrations usually feature a ‘Jarl’ or Viking Squad, a procession, the burning of a Viking-style galley or longboat, plus much dancing and merriment.
First up, and perhaps the most famous of these celebrations is Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa…
Lerwick Up Helly Aa
Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa claims to be Europe’s largest fire festival and has been an annual tradition since the 1880s, taking place on the last Tuesday in January.
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. A torchlit procession and Viking themes began to be introduced to the town’s festival, and in the late 1880s a Viking longboat – the ‘galley’ – appeared.
The processions are now world-famous and the Guizer Jarl, the leader of a 50-strong squad, is usually dressed in the finest Viking 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, so it’s a sight not to be missed!
Uyeasound Up Helly Aa
Uyeasound’s Up Helly Aa is similar to Lerwick’s (although not as big) with Vikings, longboats, and torchlit processions. Throughout the day the Viking squad visit various places on Unst, before the evening procession.
The large procession takes place with the Viking squad carrying their flaming torches, before the burning of the longboat and a large bonfire round off the evening. Afterwards the squad and the spectators make their way to the Uyeasound Hall for a night of dancing.
This year’s Uyeasound Up Helly Aa will take place on Friday 14th February, and is the first of two such annual events to be held on Unst, the other being at Norwick.
Northmavine Up Helly Aa
For the Northmavine Up Helly Aa celebrations, the areas of Sullom, Ollaberry, North Roe, Eshaness and Hillswick all come together to host the event; working on the Viking style costumes, helmets, shields and weapons throughout the year, just for this one night.
On the morning of Up Helly Aa, the galley can be seen on the waterfront but the evening, of course, is the main event. Torches are lit and the procession begins, with each guizer carrying one of the flaming torches whilst singing. The longship is pulled over a quarter of a mile along a country road from Hillswick Hall until they reach the shores of Wadill Loch. Here the galley is set adrift and the flaming torches are thrown onto the ship. A Nordic song is then sung to accompany the burning.
Northmavine Up Helly Aa is held on the third Friday of February each year.
Cullivoe Up Helly Aa
Cullivoe’s celebration is a real community affair, with the Jarl Squad spending the daytime visiting schools and elderly members of the community.
As with the other Up Helly Aa events, the evening sees a procession taking place with a Jarl Squad marching their galley from the local hall to the marina.
Once at the marina, the galley is set alight and floated out to sea. Following the burning, the squads head to the hall and local school to perform for the community, with dancing and merriment at the hall continuing long into the early hours!
South Mainland Up Helly Aa
The South Mainland Up Helly Aa is the newest of the Shetland fire festivals, having started in 2010. The Jarl Squad is made up of men, women and children, who spend the day visiting the local halls and schools.
Similar to the other events, there is an evening procession where around 400 torches are burned. The galley (built by members of the SMUHA committee, the Jarl Squad and interested helpers), is burnt while afloat at Gulberwick beach. Again, there is dancing in the local halls until the wee hours.
Delting Up Helly Aa
Delting hosts the final event in the Up Helly Aa calendar, closing the Viking fire festival season on the third Friday in March.
The first Delting Up Helly Aa took place in 1970 and the celebration has all the usual festivities including a Jarl Squad, evening torch lit procession and the partying in the local halls.
In the build up to Up Helly Aa, the boat building and other preparations that go into the event can be followed on their Facebook page, giving some idea of the hard work that goes into these celebrations.
Up Helly Aa celebrations also take place at Nesting & Girlsta (7th February), Bressay (28th February), and Norwick (29th February).