Europe’s biggest fire festival lights up Shetland in the new year.
What is it?
Up Helly Aa is one of numerous fire festivals that take place in the winter months in Shetland, Scotland, to mark the end of the yule season. The larger-than-life Viking-themed celebration currently animates eleven locations across Shetland, with the capital Lerwick being home to the greatest revelry – it’s the biggest event of its kind in Europe – on the last Tuesday of January.
The festival kicks off with a rocket launched over Lerwick Town Hall. Accompanied by a band, up to a thousand ‘guizers’ (costumed men) go on a torchlit procession through the streets of Lerwick, led by the main guizer or ‘Jarl’, sporting axes and raven-winged helmets. Being a Jarl is an honour: they must have been members of a special committee for fifteen years before they are elected. The procession heads to an imitation Viking galley (built over four months), where the guizers form a circle and sing the traditional song ‘The Norseman’s Home’ before throwing their torches aboard, setting the galley ablaze. Then the real party begins, with the guizer squads visiting local halls, and performing an act (sketches mocking local events or celebrities, singing and dancing) during the riotous all-nighter.
The Lerwick celebration arose from the older Christmas tradition of tar barrelling (dragging barrels of burning tar through town). When this was abolished around 1875 due to concerns over the raucous nature of events, permission was granted for torchlit processions, with the first dedicated Up Helly Aa procession in 1881. The Viking theme also dates from the late nineteenth century, which saw the revival of Nordic traditions led by figures such as Shetland author Haldane Burgess, whose book The Viking Path was a major influence on Up Helly Aa (he wrote the Up Helly Aa song, which is sung during the fire festival). Victorian moralism may also have had a hand in events, with claims that the Total Abstinence Society hoped the festival would give young men an alternative to excess drinking.
Since its inception, Up Helly Aa has only been cancelled four times: for the death of Queen Victoria, during the first and second world wars, and in 2021, owing to Covid-19. While the festival is traditionally male – the guizers at Lerwick are always men – some smaller rural versions now include women and the progressive South Mainland Up Helly Aa festival elected a female Jarl in 2015.
How do I go?
In recent years the procession has been streamed live via Facebook, but it is of course best experienced in person. The evening torch-lit procession and galley burning are public events that can be attended by anyone. Tickets for the late-night celebrations at Lerwick Town Hall are advertised in the Shetland Times towards the end of each year – but failing that you can call the Lerwick iCentre in January to be put on a waiting list for tickets.