Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa is the biggest of the fire festivals that take place in the winter months in Shetland. This Viking themed fire festival takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January – but is cancelled in 2021 and 2022.

On the stroke of 19:30, a rocket fired into the sky is the signal for them to light up their torches. Then the blazing procession begins, with almost a thousand men marching, led by a large squad of Vikings; the Jarl Squad. 

The day involves a series of marches and visitations and in the evening is the most famous part – the torch-lit procession and Galley burning.

Lighting up the torches at Up Helly Aa
Lighting up the torches at Up Helly Aa photo © Copyright Charles Tait

At 18:50, the men, known as Guizers (because they are in disguise), will gather to receive their torches. On the stroke of 19:30, a rocket fired into the sky is the signal for them to light up their torches. Then the blazing procession begins, with almost a thousand men marching, led by a large squad of Vikings; the Jarl Squad.

The Jarl Squad march, pulling a Viking Galley with their leader – the Guizer Jarl – standing on top. When the Galley reaches the burning site, the torchbearers form a circle round it and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song. Another rocket is fired and the Guizer Jarl leaves the ship. A bugle call sounds, and the torches are hurled into the galley!

The burning galley and the flames in the January winds are quite a sight to see.

Dates for all Shetland Fire festivals are as follows –

  • Scalloway Fire Festival – (Second Friday of January) 13th January 2023
  • Lerwick Up Helly Aa – (Last Tuesday of January) 31st January 2023
  • Lerwick Junior Up Helly Aa – (Last Tuesday of January) 31st January 2023
  • Nesting & Girlsta Up Helly Aa – (10 days after Lerwick festival) 2023 event date tbc
  • Uyeasound Up Helly Aa – (Second Friday of February) 2023 event date tbc
  • Northmavine Up Helly Aa – (Third Friday of February) 2023 event date tbc
  • Bressay Up Helly Aa – (Last Friday of February) 2023 event date tbc
  • Cullivoe Up Helly Aa – (Last Friday of February) 2023 event date tbc
  • Norwick Up Helly Aa – (Last Saturday of February) 2023 event date tbc
  • Walls Junior Up Helly Aa – (First Friday of March) 2023 event date tbc
  • South Mainland Up Helly Aa – (Second Friday of March) 2023 event date tbc
  • Delting Up Helly Aa – (Usually Third Friday of March) 2023 event date tbc
Header image: Lerwick Up Helly Aa photo © Copyright Billy Fox