by Tom Morton -
The translation of ‘Up Helly Aa’ is ‘the lightening of the year’, and there is indeed a sense, as the calendar lurches into a new twelvemonth, of spring beckoning, of winter’s closed door opening to emit the merest chink of illumination.
The burning of torches and parade of torch-wielding guizers, the snarl of ‘vikings’ in stainless steel, Gore-Tex, composite and carbon fibre, the pungent aroma of kerosene, or paraffin if you prefer - does anyone remember the ‘boom-boom-boom-boom’ song which advertised Esso Blue, when every household had a paraffin heater and no-one but the super-wealthy central heating? Up Helly Aa is a shout of defiance at the darkness, a great celebration of community to speed spring on its way.
And not just in Lerwick. If you fancy seeing a Shetland viking fire festival up close and sometimes anorak-scorchingly personal, the ‘country’ festivals start in Scalloway before Lerwick’s extravaganza and continue until the end of February. From Unst to Sumburgh, galleys are burnt, some at sea, and women participate on an (almost) equal footing, up to and including female Guizer Jarls at SMUHA - the South Mainland Up Helly Aa. Hall tickets are easier to come by, squad performances are often endearingly informal. These are smaller, very local festivals, but none the worse for that.
And for a period, what the various Up Helly Aas do is both signal the coming of the sun and intensify the darkness, exaggerate it. When the torches dim, when the galley embers burn low, you can walk back in the absolute blackness of a Shetland winter night, allow your eyes to adjust and enjoy the darkness.
Because Shetland’s dark skies are a fabulous and often ignored asset. The ‘Mirrie Dancers’, the Northern Lights, are a much sought-after sight for visitors, and they are best enjoyed against the cold, clear inkiness of a sky unpolluted by streetlamps. You’ll have seen the photographs, nearly all deceptively taken on hugely long exposures and utterly failing to capture the variety of the aurora’s manifestations.
What’s it really like? You may see only a vague greenish glow on the northern horizon. A flicker, a quiver in the air, sometimes accompanied - and only for a few people - by an insistent hum or buzzing noise. A vast, constantly shifting array of searchlight beams cutting clear white and green, pencil thin and massively wide. Great whirling crosses of colour, red, pink and green again, somehow oppressive and disturbing. Movement. It’s as if the universe is restless. And of course, there’s no predicting when, not really, although ‘atmospheric conditions’ and ‘sunspot activity’ may give you an indication. If the clouds don’t intervene.
Connoisseurs of darkness, though, go for starlight. In very isolated places, the stars can play tricks. I woke up once in a tent, very far from the nearest road, camping in the first frosts of September. Outside, I looked up and was inside Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, the famous painting of the view from his window in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The stars over Northmavine to me were as big as saucers, haloed and misty, with pin-sharp centres. Apart from the mutter of the waves and waterfalls at Lang Clodie Wick, it was completely silent, utterly still.
And the lightlessness of winter Shetland provokes parties, dances, but for me, best of all are the gatherings in stove-warmed houses, the telling of tales, the shivering and laughing at the mythical creatures of the past who may be lurking outside. But cannot come in as long as the whisky or rum is flowing and the fellowship is good. And then, when you have to walk home, you find that really, they were just stories all along, and the darkness is there to be enjoyed, to provide you with a new appreciation of this extraordinary environment.
So enjoy the Up Helly Aa of your choice. Look forward to the longer days. Take pleasure in the flash of fire, the flying sparks and defiant, flaming destruction. But take time for the essential Shetland. The Black Stuff. Because it won’t last. It never does.