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Up Helly Aa 2016 - A Personal Account

by Elizabeth Atia -

My first Up Helly Aa festival was in January 2000. I'd been living in Shetland for nearly a year by then and I'd made quite a few friends - including a couple who lived in one of the houses overlooking the play park where the galley is burned.

We had a fantastic view from the upper windows of their house, there was mulled wine to keep us warm and the partying went on well into the night. It was a fantastic first experience of Up Helly Aa - Europe's largest fire festival.

I've attended a handful of Up Helly Aa processions in the years after, but if I am to be entirely honest, I've watched more of them through the 60 North live streaming from the comfortable warmth of my home. True you don't get the full experience of the fire festival unless you've physically been there, but there's something to be said about staying warm in your pjs and getting a good view through your iPad!

I had no intentions of attending Up Helly Aa this year. The weather wasn't forecast to be particularly pleasant (although Up Helly Aa has never been cancelled because of the weather!) but as chance should have it, London-based food and travel writer, Kerstin Rodgers aka Ms. Marmite Lover, happened to be in Shetland for the event, and she wanted some company.

It didn't take much arm twisting for me to change my plans and since the schools were shut on the Wednesday following the festivities, and my husband had the day off work too, it meant that I could, if luck should be in my favour, source us a few tickets for one of the halls and I could show my London friend a proper Shetland Up Helly Aa experience.

Late Tuesday morning two tickets for the Legion materialized, and my boss at work kindly gave me Wednesday (and Thursday!) off so I could attend (and recover!).

That whole afternoon at work there was a buzz in the air. Ladies were coming into the shop with their hair perfectly styled - you see, the hall events following the procession are quite the 'to-do' with the opportunity for the ladies to dress up in their finery and dance with the squad members. Bearded men were coming in for a last minute bite to eat before heading into town to start the festivities. The village talk that afternoon was all about the festival. Were you going? Which hall were you going to? What squad members did you know?

My shift at work finished at 6:15 pm. I live half an hours' drive from Lerwick, so I was cutting it fine to be in the town centre for the 7:30 pm light up. Dressing in warm layers, including a nice water proof outer, and packing a rucksack with my fancy hall outfit and provisions, I headed into town.

Usually, that time of the evening, I'll have the rural road to myself. This night, there was a whole string of cars heading into town. I made it to a friend's house on the outskirts of town (who kindly offered the use of a spare bed, should I need it, the following morning!), dropped off my car and walked into the town centre. The rain, which had been relentless all day, had by this time ceased.

I made it just past the roundabout at Tescos when the first flare went off, signalling the start of the festivities. Immediately after there was a rosy red glow illuminating the town centre as nearly 1000 torches were lit. I could hear the squads cheering.

My heart swelled with pride at seeing this from a distance; I felt so proud to call this place home!

By the time I made it to King Harald Street, the procession was well under way. As luck should have it, the galley had just stopped for photographs, and the Guizer Jarl, Mark Evans, was standing proudly on the back, brandishing his war axe.

From here the galley was pulled around the streets and into the centre of the play park area. As I hadn't arrived in time to get a good viewpoint, and the people I knew back in 2000 no longer lived in Shetland, I had to watch from the opposite side of the street.

This is what the view looks like if you don't arrive in time to get a good vantage point - you get to watch the burning through other folk's cameras and iPhones!

The whole experience was still fantastic, and since I've seen the burning from a good vantage point many times over the last years I wasn't too worried about not seeing it properly this time.

By this time the clouds had disappeared and the stars were shining brightly above. I could see the constellation Orion watching over us.

I did manage to get a few decent snaps of the galley just before the mast toppled over, but I did have to stand on my absolute tip toes and hold my camera as far over my head as I could to do it!

My top tip to anyone coming to Shetland for this event - make sure you get to the play park area early and grab a spot next to the wall.

After the burning of the galley there's a rather lovely fireworks display and the crowds disperse to get ready for the events in the halls around Lerwick.

I headed to the hotel that my London friend was staying at to change into my dressy-up clothes and have a few drinks before we went to the Legion. Apologies in advance for the photographs that follow - my photography skills are not exactly their best when I've had a few drinks in me!

As I understand it, there are eleven halls around Lerwick hosting Up Helly Aa celebrations. The hosts provide soup, bannocks and sweets to the revellers throughout the night - fuel to keep going until breakfast the following morning.

The squads, one by one, visit each of the halls and perform their act - usually something witty and amusing based on current news events or popular culture. There's usually a fair few men dressed up like women too. Just because.

I was most impressed by the variety and talent of the squad acts. There was live music playing on stage all night, and sometimes the squad members would take over and play their own.

There was much dancing through out the night too - I was pleased to have been asked up a few times for a birl around the dance floor.

All in all it was a fantastic night, but come 5 am, after having been up and on the go for a full 24 hours, I just couldn't stay awake any longer. The Jarl Squad was due to appear at 6 am, but I couldn't last any longer. I walked back to my friend's house in Lerwick, listening to the sounds emanating from the backs of the lorries ferrying squads back and forth from the halls. Only in Shetland can you listen to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody being sung out of the back of a lorry at 5 am!

Occasionally I would walk by a squad member dressed up in fancy dress. I passed by a vampire and there are images circulating the internet of a lone tin of Tennants stumbling home the next morning.

It's an experience you definitely need to have at least once.

See you next year!

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