A Visitor’s Guide to Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa is a spectacular fire festival that takes place throughout Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. The event culminates with flaming torches being thrown into a Viking Galley! As well as the main event there is a smaller Junior version of Up Helly Aa that takes place on the same day.

A Bugle Call signals the torches to be thrown into the Galley. The Galley is an incredible sight to see as it bursts into flame, buffeted in the January winds.

If you’ve never been before; read our visitor’s guide to the day so that you don’t miss a thing!

Up Helly Aa Vikings march through Lerwick, Shetland

The Jarl’s Squad March in the Morning

You’ll get the first glimpse of the Jarl’s Squad as they go for breakfast in the Islesburgh Community Centre – afterwards they carry on to the Galley Shed, the Toll Clock Shopping Centre and then go into the British Legion.

The beautiful Up Helly Aa Longship on parade in Lerwick, Shetland

The Jarl’s Squad march with the Galley (which remains with them part of the way) They begin at the British Legion, accompanied by the Lerwick British Legion Pipe Band and Lerwick Brass Band, go along Commecial Road and the Esplanade before turning into Commercial Street. The Jarl’s Squad stops at the Market Cross – where the Proclamation (aka The Bill – instructions with local jokes and satire included) is located.

The Up Helly Aa bill is unveiled at the Market Cross, Lerwick, Shetland

If you wish to read the Bill, it will be at the Market Cross from 0630 until 1700.

The Lerwick Brass Band during Up Helly Aa

The procession then continues along Commercial Street to Harbour Street and travels back along the Esplanade, where the Jarl’s Squad rejoin the Galley at Alexandra Wharf.

The parade on the morning of Up Helly Aa in the Shetland islands

Every year the Jarl’s Squad will pose with the galley for photographs at the Bressay Ferry Terminal, and this is a great opportunity for both amateur and professional photographers to take shots of the amazing outfits made for this year’s squad!

If you wish to take a photo of the Galley standing alone; it will remain at the Bressay Ferry Terminal until 1800.

The Jarl Squad and the galley during Up Helly Aa in Shetland

The Jarl’s Squad leave the Galley and are piped along the Esplanade, up Harbour Street and into the Town Hall; where toasts are drunk! The goblet the Jarl’s Squad drinks from comes from Måløy, Lerwick’s friendship town in Norway.

Afterwards, the Jarl’s Squad will visit local Primary Schools, Hospitals, eventide homes and the Shetland Museum.

The Junior Jarl’s Squad Morning Procession

There is a similar procession for the Junior Jarl and his Squad and his galley!

The Junior Galley will be on show at the Anderson High School car park from 0930 to 1100.

The Junior Jarl Squad on parade through the streets of Lerwick, Shetland

Then at 1100, the Junior Jarl and his Squad march with the Junior Galley along Commercial Street to Harbour Street and continue on to the Primary Schools. Finally, the Junior Galley is taken to Shetland Museum. The Junior Jarl’s Squad then visit Holmsgarth Terminal to have lunch with NorthLink Ferries on board the ship!

More Up Helly Aa events

At the Mareel; Fiery Sessions is a fringe Up Helly Aa event – a concert which showcases the best of Shetland’s traditional music! The concert lasts an hour and a half and there’s another concert on at 1500.

1230 (until 1530)
At Shetland Museum this year’s Junior Galley will be on Hay’s Dock for photographs!

At the Mareel; Fiery films – seven short films, both contemporary and from the archive, will take you on a journey of the festival through the ages.

The Jarl Squad visit Shetland Museum and Archives

1530 (until 1630)
At Shetland Museum, you can have the chance to meet the Guizar Jarl and his Squad of Vikings.

The Junior Jarl’s Squad set the Junior Galley on fire!

The Junior Torchlit Procession begins at Lower Hillhead. The Junior Guizers march down the Town Hall Brae into King Erik Street and then they proceed into the North Playing Field.

During Junior Up Helly Aa the Jarl Squad set their own galley on fire!

The Junior Guizers circle the North Playing Field, and then got to the centre of the field to set the Junior Galley ablaze!

The Torchlit Procession and Galley Burning

All the Squads gather at the Islesburgh Community Centre where they are given torches and are directed to Lower Hillhead. The Jarl’s Squad are the only squad that dress as Vikings – all the other squads come as other characters!

The Guizer Jarl’s Squad (accompanied by the Brass Band) will pass up through the ranks of the Guizers.

Guizers with flaming torches during Up Helly Aa, Shetland

A rocket fired over the town hall gives the signal for lighting the torches – a spectacular sight! The Guizer and the Jarl’s Squad will pass down though the ranks of men. After the Guizer Jarl’s Squad take up position at the front of the galley, the procession commences, singing the Up Helly Aa song through Lerwick’s streets. The Galley is moved along the streets with the Guizer Jarl aboard!

Torchlit procession during Up Helly Aa

The march takes the following route: Lower Hillhead, Town Hall Brae, St Olaf Street, Prince Alfred Street, King Harald Street, Harbour Street, St Olaf Street, King Erik Street and then down into the North King George V playing field. Here the procession circles the park until the Galley is taken into the middle of the Park.

Flaming torches encircle the Viking Longship during Up Helly Aa in Shetland

It’s worth noting that the general public are not allowed into the burning site. For photographers wishing to capture the scale of the event, you might want to step back anyway! The public are also requested to keep King Eric Street clear and to stay on the pavements.

The Galley is set ablaze during Up Helly Aa in Shetland

Up to one thousand torch bearers circle the Galley and the Galley song is sung as the Guizer Jarl’s Squad marches round the Galley. The Guizer Jarl then leaves the Galley and there are cheers for the Galley builders, the torch makers, the festival itself and the Guizer Jarl. Then a Bugle Call signals the torches to be thrown into the Galley.

The Galley is an incredible sight to see as it bursts into flame, buffeted in the January winds. There is a fireworks display also. The Squads reform a circle and sing The Norseman’s Home before dispersing to begin their rounds of the Halls.

The burning Up Helly Aa galley

Later on into the evening

The Halls open on Up Helly Aa night and the Squads visit each one with an entertaining act – a dance or skit – before moving on to the next. The Guizer Jarl’s Squad goes around in opposite direction to all the other squads. It is a tradition that every Guizer must dance with at least one of the ladies in each hall and take a dram.

Guizer Squads keep everyone entertained in the Halls duing Up Helly Aa night

Halls open on Up Helly Aa night are as follows:

  • Sound Hall
  • Anderson High School
  • Town Hall
  • T.A. Hall
  • Holmsgarth Terminal
  • Royal British Legion
  • Islesburgh Community Centre
  • Bells Brae School
  • Gilbertson Park Games Hall
  • Clickimin Centre
  • Sound School

These are ticketed events organised by volunteers. The evening’s entertainment in the halls lasts well into the early hours!

At the Mareel, Stand Up Helly Aa is an annual stand-up comedy show design to warm you up after the procession with laughter!

Throughout Lerwick, celebrations continue into the night.

The following day is a public holiday to allow many sore heads to recover!

Magnus DixonBy Magnus Dixon
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, enjoys films and audiobooks, eats a little too much for his own good.

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