There are 11 Up Helly Aas in total across Shetland between January and March each year. The biggest and most well-known is Lerwick Up Helly Aa, so here's a brief summary of what happens on the day.
Each Up Helly Aa has only one Jarl Squad (dressed as Vikings) and Lerwick’s Guizer Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of their life for 15 years or more. When his big day arrives he dons a raven-winged helmet, grabbing axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon. Along with the rest of the committed, volunteer crew, the Guizer Jarl will have spent thousands of hours planning and preparing each and every detail of Up Helly Aa and its associated events, until the big day dawns.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa's torch-lit evening procession involves almost 1,000 heavily-disguised guizers but the revelry begins much earlier in the day when the Guizer Jarl (the lead Viking) and his squad parade through the streets and visits schools, community centres and care homes in the town. This gives tourists, young people, the elderly and more vulnerable members of the community the chance to see the Jarl Squad in all their finery.
On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day all of the torch bearers (known as guizers) gather in groups, known as ‘squads’, and form ranks in the darkened streets of Shetland’s capital. Only the Jarl Squad wears Viking dress; the rest are in costumes ranging from the almost sublime to the totally ridiculous.
Each guizer shoulders a stout fencing post, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking. On the stroke of 7.30pm, a signal rocket bursts over Lerwick Town Hall. The torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly at the helm of his doomed replica longship, or 'galley'.
It takes half an hour for the Jarl's Squad of Vikings to drag the galley to the burning site, through a crowd of 5,000 or more spectators.
The guizers circle the dragon ship in a slow-motion Catherine Wheel of fire. Another rocket explodes overhead. The Jarl leaves the galley, to a crescendo of cheers. A bugle call sounds, and then the torches are hurled into the lovingly-crafted vessel.
As the inferno destroys four months of painstaking work by the galley builders, the crowd sings 'The Norseman's Home' – a stirring requiem that can bring tears to the eyes of the hardiest Viking.