In January, one of the darkest months of winter in Shetland, fires are lit to celebrate the islands heritage. Up Helly Aa is the biggest event in Shetland, and is one of the most compelling reasons to visit Shetland.
Accommodation and travel are booked up fast – so if you’re lucky enough to find space for Up Helly Aa – book as soon as you can!
The History of Up Helly Aa
The festival itself is relatively new – and grew from older Yuletide and New Year festivities, when young men beat drums, blew horns, fired guns, shouted and caused mischief on Old Christmas Eve. In 1840 tar barrels were introduced into the proceedings – and were dragged (on fire) on sledges through the town by squads of masked young men. Tar barrelling was abolished – but only really stopped when the young men of Lerwick had grown tired of it.
Change came around 1870, when a group of young men injected new ideas into the proceedings – delaying the celebration until late January, introducing a far more elaborate form of disguise – “guizing” and incorporating a torchlight procession. The Up Helly Aa “bill” displayed at the Market Cross was introduced and it poked fun at the pompous – sometimes driving the victims to fury. Later on Viking themes were introduced and in the late 1880s the replica Viking Longship was introduced into Up Helly Aa.
Since the Second World War, Up Helly Aa has become a much bigger festival, which is efficiently coordinated throughout the year. Previously, individuals kept open house to welcome the guizers on Up Helly Aa night, now large Halls throughout Lerwick (including Holmsgarth Terminal) are opened to entertain them.
What happens on the day
Up Helly Aa takes place on the final Tuesday of January, this year on Tuesday 31st January 2017. The day involves a series of marches and visitations and in the evening is the most famous part – the torch-lit procession. At 7.30pm, a signal rocket explodes in the sky above the town hall, torches (stout fencing posts, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking) are lit, the band begins to play and a blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile behind the Guizar Jarl – who stands upon his replica Longship.
The Galley is dragged by the Jarl’s Squad to the burning site (at other times of the year, a children’s playground) through a crowd of five thousand spectators, and then the torchbearers form a circle round the Longship and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song. Another rocket is fired and the Jarl leaves the ship. A bugle call sounds, and the torches are hurled into the galley. The sight of the galley ablaze is amazing – but the night does not end there. Later on and well into the next morning there follows hours of performing and dancing in halls throughout Lerwick. Various Squads of men visit each hall and perform a piece. In Holmsgarth Terminal, visitors arriving from the NorthLink Ferry the next morning will arrive to a party still in full swing!
Other Shetland Fire Festivals
There are other Fire Festivals throughout Shetland during the winter – and in the other fire festivals women can participate as torch-bearers and guizers, unlike in Lerwick. Scalloway Fire Festival, held earlier in January, is unique in that the Galley is burnt whilst floating on the sea.
Dates for all Shetland Fire festivals are as follows –
- Scalloway Fire Festival – Friday 13th January 2017 (second Friday of January)
- Lerwick Up Helly Aa – Tuesday 31st Jan 2017 (Last Tuesday of January)
- Lerwick Junior Up Helly Aa – Tuesday 31st Jan 2017 (Last Tuesday of January)
- Nesting & Girlsta Up Helly Aa – Friday 10th February 2017 (10 days after Lerwick festival)
- Uyeasound Up Helly Aa – Friday 10th February 2017 (Second Friday of February)
- Northmavine Up Helly Aa – Friday 17th February 2017 (Third Friday of February)
- Bressay Up Helly Aa – Friday 24th February 2017 (Last Friday of February)
- Cullivoe Up Helly Aa – Friday 24th February 2017 (Last Friday of February)
- Norwick Up Helly Aa – Saturday 25th February 2017 (Third Saturday of February)
- Walls Junior Up Helly Aa – Friday 3th March 2017 (First Friday of March)
- South Mainland Up Helly Aa – Friday 10th March 2017 (Second Friday of March)
- Delting Up Helly Aa – Friday 17th March 2017 (Third Friday of March)
If you don’t manage to see any of the Fire Festivals, there is an Up Helly Aa Exhibition in the Galley shed in Lerwick from mid-May until mid-September.
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, great taste in films and tv, eats a little too much for his own good.