Up Helly Aa Visitor Guide

By Craig Neil. This post includes affiliate links.

Up Helly Aa is a fire festival and procession held annually in the Shetland Islands in the middle of winter to mark the end of the Yule season.

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 the Shetland town of Lerwick would drag burning barrels of tar through the streets. Discover why this is one of the biggest events in the north of Scotland with this complete visitor guide.

Up Helly Aa



Up Helly Aa is a truly mesmerizing festival that’s held annually in the far northern Scottish Isle of Shetland every January (read my guide to Visiting Scotland in January).

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 the Shetland town of Lerwick would drag burning barrels of tar through the streets.

However, those festivities were often accompanied by a copious amount of alcohol which saw the men get up to plenty of mischief, so the town councillors instead sought to transform the festival into something that represented the island’s long history with Vikings, and hence the fire festival was born.

Broch of Mousa

The island of Shetland is steeped in history and there are lots of attractions to view after you’ve been to the Up Helly Aa event including Mousa Broch (the best-preserved broch – a type of fort – in the world) and Muness Castle which is the most northerly castle in the British Isles.

There are spectacular natural attractions too like the Noss National Nature Reserve and Sumburgh Head, which is a seabird colony where you’ll be able to see loads of puffins near Sumburgh Head Lighthouse.

Up Helly Aa really is a spectacular event and the sight of dozens of Vikings striding through the centre of Lerwick holding burning torches is amazing – and so 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.

Up Helly Aa

The highlights

1: Up Helly Aa is quite a spectacle with all the fires raging. Think of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Torchlight Procession, but with Vikings!

2: Perhaps even better than Up Helly Aa is the Shetland Isles landscape which is stunningly beautiful. I recommend taking a car to explore all the remote regions the island has to offer.

Visiting tips

1: Lerwick is a nice wee town but it’s quite small and outside the festival there’s not a huge amount to do. It does, however, have a few boat tour operators that will take you wildlife-watching around the coastline.

2: Book your accommodation well in advance as Lerwick gets very busy at this time.

3: Shetland’s days are short in winter so head out to the attractions early in the morning to make the most of the available daylight.

Up Helly Aa

Tourist information

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.

At this time 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.

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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 on to 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.

Shetland Island

You’ll find that accommodation is limited in Lerwick at this time of year so if you intend on going I suggest you book well in advance.

The only other negative I have about visiting Shetland in winter is that as it’s so far north the days are very short and you’ll only get around six hours of daylight, plus the weather is almost always cold and wet.

On the plus side though, that means you can spend the evening cosied up indoors with a roaring log fire and a warming bottle of Shetland Reel whisky from the island’s excellent Saxa Vord distillery.

If Up Helly Aa has whetted your appetite for Scotland’s islands check out these Hebrides articles.

Lerwick Shetland

Things to do

Join the Torchlight Procession: The highlight of Up Helly Aa is the torchlight procession where hundreds of participants, known as guizers, carry flaming torches through the streets of Lerwick. The procession is led by the chief guizer and his squad who are dressed as Vikings, and culminates in the burning of a replica Viking longship.

Attend the Up Helly Aa Exhibition: Visit the Up Helly Aa Exhibition to learn about the history and significance of the festival. The museum showcases photographs, costumes, and other historical artefacts which provide fascinating insights into the festival’s evolution over the years.

Savor Local Cuisine: No visit to Up Helly Aa would be complete without sampling the local cuisine at the food and drink market. From hearty Shetland lamb stew to fresh seafood, the food is as much a part of the festival as the torchlight procession.

Enjoy Traditional Shetland Music: Throughout the Up Helly Aa festival, the air is filled with the sounds of traditional Shetland music which is an integral part of the festivities. Get in the mood by listening to a collection of Up Helly Aa songs from the official website.

Explore Shetland: After the festival, take a day or two to explore this wild and windy archipelago. Shetland is renowned for its stunning coastline as well as its wildlife-spotting opportunities, so make sure you pack binoculars (link to binocular reviews) before leaving home.

Frequently asked questions

How do I get to Lerwick?

Address: Shetland, ZE1 0PE

Directions map: Google Maps

Lerwick is accessible by ferry and aircraft.

What is burned at Up Helly Aa?

The Up Helly Aa fire festival takes place every year in Lerwick, Shetland. The event culminates with a torchlight procession and the burning of a replica Viking longship.

What is Up Helly Aa celebrating?

Up Helly Aa is a celebration of Shetland’s history which has a proud heritage dating back to the Vikings. The event involves locals dressing as Vikings and ceremoniously burning a Viking longship.

What visitor facilities are there at Lerwick?

Lerwick has a number of shops, supermarkets, gift shops, public toilets, cafés, restaurants, pubs, and car parking. Visit the official website for updated information on available facilities.

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By Craig Neil

Craig Neil is a travel writer from Edinburgh with a passion for visiting Scotland's tourist attractions. Over the last 15 years he has explored Scotland from the Shetland Islands to the Scottish Borders, and he shares his travel experiences in Out About Scotland.