This festival of flame will keep you warm even during the coldest of mid-winter on the far-flung Shetland Islands.
When I returned from a recent trip to the UK and told my friends I had been to Up Helly Aa, the usual reply was “what on earth is that”? Up Helly Aa is a festival with a powerful Viking theme which is held each year in the Shetland Islands.
Its centrepiece is the burning of a Viking galley but Up Helly Aa is much more than that. The festival’s origins can be traced back to 1824 but the present form of the event took shape in the early 1870s and is loosely tied to celebrating midwinter and the anticipation of warmer weather.
Those who have heard of Up Helly Aa would most likely associate the event with Lerwick, the biggest town on the collection of islands representing the most northerly part of the UK and only six degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
Here thousands of onlookers gather in and around the grey granite buildings of the ancient town to witness hundreds of touch-bearing revellers led by the chief Viking and his squad.
The chief is called the Jarl and his team are known as guizers. The Jarl and his squad, dressed in full Viking costume, take pride of place in the procession to set fire to the galley but they are followed by numerous other torch-carrying squads, all in fancy dress.
At the end of the procession, at the harbour’s edge, the teams circle the galley singing traditional songs and finish by throwing their flaming torches into the boat.
Then the real fun starts! The various squads disperse to the village halls in the area to provide the locals — and visiting tourists — with some form of entertainment liberally assisted with food and drink.
After a few days, and after the effects of the carousing have worn off, planning begins again for the next year’s festival.
The successor to the Jarl for the next few years has already been decided on and it is now up to the new chief to pick his team and the symbolic theme for his squad.
This includes the design of the shields and the commissioning of a painting to best represent the new Jarl and his heritage.
The other major undertaking is the building of the galley, which is done in secret and only shown to the public on the night of the festival. (Contrary to popular belief the helmets do not have horns but are decorated with bird’s wings.)
When I knew I would be in Shetland visiting friends and relatives I was very disappointed that I couldn’t organise the timing to experience the Up Helly Aa festival, something I have had on my wish-list for a long time.
On further examination, I found that although the Lerwick event was the biggest, each of the other regions held their own, albeit on a smaller scale. So no matter, my schedule would allow me to go to the one in Nesting, which was a great relief.
As you can imagine the weather in February was freezing, however though there was a light falling of snow, there was no rain.
Although Shetland is close to the Arctic Circle the weather is moderated by the warmer Gulf Stream that embraces the islands and since there is nowhere on the island more than 5km from the sea, you don’t experience the extremes you might expect.
In the pitch dark the torches were lit and the Jarl assembled his team of bearded guizers and the rest of the curiously dressed squads. He then led the procession from the village hall to the galley which had been painstakingly built over the past year.
It was a magnificent sight with the line of torches winding its way through the dark, barren landscape. As tradition dictates, the squads circled the galley singing before finally setting fire to the boat. (As a sign of the times the galley can’t be pushed out into the sea because of concerns over pollution.) The squads and the onlookers then disperse to local halls for fun, singing and a lot of drinking.
The Shetland Islands in winter can be a cold and bleak destination but it can also be surprisingly clear and beautiful. It was my good fortune to be there when the latter was the case. It was cold of course, but I experienced clear blue skies which allowed me to see the breathtaking beauty of these otherwise barren islands.
If I was to generalise, always a dangerous activity, the Shetlanders are friendly but reserved (but not during Up Helly Aa), very industrious and self-reliant and speak with a soft lilting accent quite different to the “sooth moothers”, in other words, those from the southern mainland of Scotland.
They are a hardy people, shaped by their isolation and the harsh climate. The closest big city is Bergen in Norway. They have a reputation for not interfering in other people’s affairs and just getting on with business.
Historically the Shetlanders relied on fishing and running their small farms or crofts to make a living.
However, with the discovery of North Sea oil and the building of the Sullom Voe oil and production terminal, a new prosperity has come to the community.
Great care has been taken to ensure that any new infrastructure has had a minimal effect on the environment. For example, a huge concrete container has been built to store the topsoil removed when a new addition to the terminal was built. This material is known as peat and the idea is that it can be re-laid when the terminal is removed sometime in the future.
There is plenty for the visitor to see and do in Shetland and although it isn’t cheap to get there, it is a wonderful experience on so many levels.
Top picture: Approaching the rugged Shetlands by air. Picture: David Nicolson
- For more on the festival, see shetland.org/things/events/culture-heritage/up-helly-aa.