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Up Helly Aa for kids!

by Louise Thomason -

This time of year can often be a dull time for kids, after all the excitement and anticipation of Christmas. But not in Shetland.

From January to March, it is fire festival season. For some, that might not mean much – but for the island's Up Helly Aa obsessed children, it means one thing: Vikings!

Shetland's fire festivals center around a Jarl squad, dressed in Viking costume, who march around, singing the Up Helly Aa song, carry burning torches, and burn a full size galley ship at night. You can see why it would appeal to children! And while the day itself means a chance to see 'real' Vikings, there are plenty of other activities for children to get involved in.

Most schools and nurseries will have fire festival themed activities, and make Viking headdresses, shields and axes in the weeks running up to the event. (With some kids, Viking fever never really dissipates, and dressing up with a beard, horned helmet and axe and singing the Up Helly Aa song while carrying out everyday tasks becomes the norm. And why not?!)

Lerwick Up Helly Aa is the best known, though 11 other festivals also run, held from Sumburgh to Unst. While country festivals differ slightly from the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, on the day of the event, the Jarl squads' visits to local care homes and schools are a highlight for children, who sing songs with the squad and roar along in delight.

Some children, whose family members are in the Jarl squad, may be part of the squad themselves: Children as young as 5 years old - donning adorably tiny Viking outfits - can take part in. But even if your family isn't directly involved, there is plenty to enjoy.

In Lerwick, there is a morning procession in the town which is very popular with children and means a chance to catch a glimpse of the Jarl squad as they parade through the streets. Many of the local schools and nurseries plan a daytrip to the town center to take in the daytime procession.

In some communities, children are the focus of the event: In Walls, on Shetland's west side, there is no tradition of Up Helly Aa, but the local children host their own junior version.

Organised by the local Brownies, the event sees a Jarl squad of young girls – who make their own costumes, shield and axes – parade their wooden galley and real torches from the local hall to the kirk-yard for the burning. The galley was built by a local craftsman and is reused each year, and instead, wood is piled into a specially made metal galley to be burned.

They then return to the hall for acts, country dancing and food, and are joined by squads made up of anyone who wishes to put on an act: drama groups, squads from other fire festivals and community members.

Lerwick's junior Jarl squad - who also visit schools during the day – are made up of boys aged 14. Their procession isn't as crowded as the adult version and perhaps a better way for smaller children to enjoy the fun.

One of the big spectacles of Up Helly Aa is the impressive fiery parade. You could be forgiven for feeling slightly aghast at the thought of taking your tots to a torchlit procession, to witness the burning of a very large boat, and we couldn't argue with you - it does sound dangerous!

In reality, though, the processions are very safe, and while you'll probably come away smelling of smoke, you'll never be close enough to the fire to come in to any harm. Seeing the procession, singing along as guizers march by and watching the galley burning is a highlight for lots of children, maybe followed by fish and chips to be munched on the way home if the weather is fine enough.

After the evening procession, and if they're old enough, it's party time! Local, volunteer run halls play host to an evening of traditional country dancing and visits by the Jarl squad and each non-Viking squad, who each perform an act. Refreshments, including Shetland's winter staples of reestit mutton and bannocks, tattie soup and cups of tea, are provided to keep your energy levels up.

Out with Up Helly Aa day, there are usually lots of Viking themed activities for families to enjoy.

Lerwick library is hosting an Up Helly Aa themed Bookbug event at 10.30am on Friday the 24th at the Shetland Museum and Archives, with songs and stories to get your tiny Vikings in the mood. No booking is required but it can be busy so get along early if you'd like a space.

Shetland Museum and Archives are hosting a Up Helly Aa Family Fun Day on Sunday 26th at 2 - 3.30pm. Families can make a helmet, torch and shield, and then take part in their own procession around the museum at the end of the event.

There will be a pop-up Up Helly Aa food market from 2pm at Mareel on Monday the 27th, and on Wednesday 29th and Thursday 30th ceramic studio Aa Fired Up are hosting Up Helly Aa work shops where children (and adults!) can paint a galley or Viking on their chosen pottery, and then make some fun up Helly Aa slime to take away. Find out more and book a place on their Facebook page.

We hope your family enjoy Up Helly Aa season, however you spend it!

Posted in: Community

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