The Out About Scotland complete guide to Up Helly Aa
What’s this event all about?
Up Helly Aa is a truly mesmerizing festival that’s held annually in the far northern Scottish Isle of Shetland. Dating back to 1876, the fire festival as we recognize it today was created in response to a much earlier yuletide tradition where squads of young men in Lerwick would drag burning barrels of tar through the town.
However those festivities were often accompanied by a copious amount of alcohol which saw the men get up to plenty of mischief, so the elders of Lerwick instead sought to transform the festival into something that represented the island’s long history with Vikings, and hence the fire festival was born.
Up Helly Aa really is an incredible spectacle, and the sight of dozens of Vikings striding through the centre of Lerwick holding burning torches is pretty spectacular, as is the flaming ship that gets set alight at the end of the event. In fact, Up Helly Aa is so good I’d even suggest you make a special journey to Shetland just to experience it.Read more...
What can you do there?
Preparations for Up Helly Aa begin as early in the year as February, but you’ll understand why once you see the craftsmanship that goes into the outfits of the Jarl and his squad of guizers.
And while the preparations start early, so does the actual day of Up Helly Aa, because the event begins long before nightfall when groups of participants dressed in elaborate Viking outfits parade through the town while stopping off at various local points of interest like the Market Cross and the Town Hall.
In the evening, squads of Shetland locals dress up in a variety of costumes and walk through the town carrying huge burning torches. The Jarl, (a character from Norse legend), then leads his squad of ‘guizers’ through Lerwick where a replica Viking longship is dragged through the streets along with them.
Different squads of guizers form together during the procession, all dressed in various costumes, some historical, some satirical, and they eventually arrive at the ship’s final resting place. They then form a circle around it and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song, at the end of which all the burning torches are tossed ceremoniously into the vessel.
As the ship burns and the flames rise into the sky another traditional song, ‘The Norseman’s Home’ is sung, before all participants move onto a night of partying and celebration. More often than not these parties last well into the next day and often start back up again the next night! If you think that you’ve got the stamina for it then you really owe it to yourself to attend this extraordinary festival at least once in your life.
What I liked about this event
- It’s quite a spectacle with all the fires raging at night
- It’s definitely a unique event
What I didn’t like about this event
- It gets a bit lively when alcohol starts flowing. Maybe avoid it if you’re the quiet type
Prices and opening times
Up Helly Aa takes place in Lerwick and some other towns in Shetland on the last Tuesday of January every year, with the following Wednesday being a public holiday to allow for recovery!
There is no cost to attend the procession but donations are welcome. See the website for details.