Up Helly Aa – 2011

Imagine a place only 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, with strong Norse links, a beautiful landscape, and strong traditions.

That place is Shetland – specifically Lerwick – and it is eerily quiet today. The roads are deserted, the shops are shut; even the seagulls have quietened down. For last night was the Viking Fire Festival – Up Helly Aa – and the residents of Lerwick are either not long in bed, or still carousing around the town.

Up Helly Aa (from Up Halli Day – meaning the end of the holiday period) is not an ancient festival, although its roots go back a long way, stretching back to the Viking settlers around 800-900AD. The festival in its current form began in the late 1800s, after the Victorian Christmas tradition of rolling burning tar barrels through the streets was banned in 1874.

The festival began at 6.00am, when the Proclamation was posted in the square in Lerwick – a partially-impenetrable (to outsiders) document satirising local events, news and citizens, and proclaiming the start of Up Helly Aa.

Up Helly Aa Proclamation

Shortly thereafter, the galley – a miniature Viking longboat built specially for the event by one of the Squads – is paraded through the streets and put on display down by the harbour. It’s a beautifully built thing, and it made me feel a little sad to think of it being burned!

It is around mid-morning when the Squads start to visit the local schools, hospitals and old folks’ homes. Joe and I did not make it out of bed in time to see the early stuff, due to excessive alcohol consumption the evening before…

…but we did take a look at the galley:

Galley on display

…and were at the Lerwick Museum when the Jarl Squad arrived. Which was a bit of a treat.

A Viking of the Jarl Squad visits the Lerwick Museum

A note on the Squads:

  • Total number of participants, or guizers – 969 (all male – no women in this festival!)
  • The Squads are made up of guizers – men in disguise
  • There are 50 groups, or Squads, altogether – each with their own theme and costumes
  • The Jarl Squad is squad number one, and is led by the Guizer Jarl (Jarl is from the Norse word for Earl). Men of Shetland can wait up to 15 years for this honour, and it’s the biggest day of their lives
  • The Jarl Squad contains 50 guizers, and they traditionally wear a Viking costume that they make themselves, from scratch, over the course of a year. The detail is beautiful, and the costumes can cost thousands of pounds (up to £10,000) – so men will save up for years

There are also junior guizer squads, and kids are part of the main squads too. They are beyond cute:

The cutest baby Viking in Shetland

Back to the schedule: crowds start thronging the streets at around 6.45pm, waiting for the torchlit parade. It’s quite a sight, and not one to be seen on an empty stomach. So to a carvery we went. It was enormous. And a little panicky. There were meat sweats.

Weeble-like, we wobbled down to the park.

The galley is paraded at the head of the procession, then installed in the park. The park is helpfully surrounded by a stone wall, which is perfect for us to stand behind and watch proceedings.

A dull glow at the top of the hill marked the beginning of the parade. That, or the town hall was on fire…

There are 900-odd flaming torches up there...

We waited, and faffed with the cameras (there was unbelievable camera faffage) and froze a little bit. Then they arrived – 900 men with flaming torches and a powerful thirst, dressed in costumes ranging from authentic Viking to Catholic cardinals to buxom Baywatch lifeguards and many, many unfathomable things in between.

It was quite a sight to see. I’ve never seen anything like it; there is likely nothing else to equal it! There is a lot of power in ritual; you could feel the excitement, the energy, the camaraderie between the guizers and this feeling spread to the crowd. People were friendly, warm and kind. And cold.

The Guizers parade around the streets of Lerwick

And from a short distance it was like a river of fire.

River of fire leading to the galley

The guizers march to the burning site and surround the galley, circumnavigating it several times. The Jarl Squad are first in line, throwing their flaming torches onto the galley (after the Guizer Jarl has jumped off!). Then ensues semi-organised chaos: guizers duck and head backwards as those behind them throw their torches on, until the galley is aflame and the guizers stand back and watch.

Galley aflame!

It was truly spectacular! But tinged with sadness, as it had the air of a funeral pyre.

Part two of Up Helly Aa – what they get up to in the Halls – coming soon, to a blog near you…

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