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By Promote ShetlandJanuary 12th 2023

If you'd like to witness an Up Helly Aa in Shetland for yourself, we've compiled a list of useful FAQs to help you plan your visit.

  • What actually happens at Up Helly Aa?

    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.

  • What happens after the burning of the galley (Viking longship)?

    After the Viking longship is burned, the guizers and assembled crowds head to community halls and schools for a night of dancing and merriment.

    More than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen halls in rotation. They're all invited guests at what are still private parties – apart from a couple of halls where tickets are on sale to the general public.

    At every hall each squad performs its 'act', perhaps a skit on local events, a dance display in spectacular costume, or a topical send-up of a popular TV show or pop group.

    Every guizer has a duty (as the 'Up Helly Aa Song' says) to dance with guests in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of reestit mutton soup and bannocks.

    There is always lots of dancing, seeing old friends, and enjoying the occasional drink in what was originally an entirely ‘dry’ festival aimed at encouraging abstinence. Officially, in some halls more than others, it still is!

  • Are visitors welcome at Up Helly Aa?

    Yes, of course! Each year Shetland welcomes visitors from all over the world who want to witness the fiery spectacle that is Up Helly Aa.

    Most visit for Lerwick Up Helly Aa, which is the biggest event held in the islands' capital, but accommodation books up fast so you have to plan well ahead. If you want a taster of what Up Helly Aa is like, but don't want to plan your whole trip around it, then coincide a winter holiday in Shetland with one of the rural fire festivals, such as Scalloway Fire Festival, South Mainland Up Helly Aa or Delting Up Helly Aa.

    If you do want to visit for Lerwick Up Helly Aa then you'll get the chance to view the day's Jarl Squad (Viking) parade through the town centre as well as the torch-lit festival and galley (longship) burning in the evening. Please note however that many of the halls after the burning are privately hosted events, so tickets to the general public are limited.

  • Should I visit Shetland just for Up Helly Aa?

    While Fire Festival Season is undoubtedly a highlight of the Shetland social calendar, each of the Up Helly Aas are privately-run community events, organised by volunteers.

    While there is plenty of opportunity to witness the spectacle of Up Helly Aa by watching one of the torch-lit processions and galley burnings, there is limited opportunity for visitors to take part in the festivities themselves. The squads who participate in the parades and galley burning are planned months in advance and, for health and safety reasons, members of the public cannot get involved. Likewise, the hall events are privately organised dances and not ticketed to the general public.

    Seeing an Up Helly Aa in Shetland is an event like no other, particularly one of the bigger processions like Lerwick or South Mainland Up Helly Aa, but if you are planning a visit to Shetland we recommend you make a holiday out of it and check out some of the other fantastic things to see and do here during the winter months.

  • How do I find accommodation for Up Helly Aa?

    To find a place to stay during your visit, see our accommodation page for a list of providers. Please note that accommodation in Lerwick books up months in advance for Lerwick Up Helly Aa, so book early to avoid disappointment.

  • What is the best way to experience Lerwick Up Helly Aa?

    In recent years, the evening procession has been streamed live, with a chance for anyone, anywhere in the world to comment or send messages to guizers live online. Keep an eye on our Facebook page to stay up to date with plans for live broadcasts, which you can view on our Up Helly Aa streaming site.

    If you would prefer to experience Lerwick Up Helly Aa in person, you can watch the morning march as well as the evening torch-lit procession and galley burning – these are all public events.

  • Is there a timetable for Lerwick Up Helly Aa day?

    Yes! The format of the day is pretty much the same year on year and you can view the day's itinerary on the official Up Helly Aa website.

  • How do I get a ticket for an Up Helly Aa hall?

    Tickets for Lerwick Up Helly Aa halls are extremely limited but if you would like to join the late night celebrations at Lerwick's Town Hall, keep a look out in the Shetland Times towards the end of the year, as a limited number of tickets will be advertised. If you are not lucky enough to get your hands on one of these, you can call the Lerwick iCentre in January (+44 (0)1595 3434) and they will put you on the waiting list for tickets.

    To find out about attending the halls of any of the rural Up Helly Aa fire festivals, the best thing to do is go to the individual Facebook pages for each of the events and send a message to the page admin to see where tickets might be available.

  • Are there other events taking place around the same time as Lerwick Up Helly Aa?

    Yes, if you are visiting Shetland for Lerwick Up Helly Aa's evening procession, there are other events taking place that week to tie in with the festival.

    On the Monday before Up Helly Aa, 30 January, Shetland Food and Drink are hosting an Up Helly Aa Food and Drink Market. The event held at Mareel will showcase delicious wares from local producers that you can sample and buy to take home. For more details, see A Taste of Shetland's website.

    On Lerwick Up Helly Aa day itself, you can get a taste of traditional Shetland music at the Fiery Sessions, held at the Garrison Theatre. This is a ticketed event featuring local musicians, including the Young Fiddler of the Year. There will be two performances - at 12pm and 3pm - and you can buy tickets from the Shetland Arts website.

  • Can I live stream Lerwick Up Helly Aa?

    Yes, you can. We have a dedicated Up Helly Aa streaming site where you can view all the action from the comfort of your own home and wherever you are in the world.

  • Can I get a selfie with a Viking?

    Yes, you should be able to. The best way to get a picture with a member of the Viking Jarl Squad at Lerwick Up Helly Aa is during the day when they gather in the town centre. They usually visit the Shetland Museum in the afternoon and this would be a good time to grab a Viking for a quick pic.

    For the safety of the public, the torch-lit evening processions are carefully managed and the streets cordoned off to prevent people getting injured by the burning flames. You won't be able to get close to any of the Vikings for a selfie but you'll have plenty of opportunity to take photos from your (safe) viewing point.

  • I work in the media. Can I get a press pass for Up Helly Aa?

    Lerwick Up Helly Aa is undoubtedly one of the most photographed events in Shetland's annual calendar. The media is welcome to photograph the day's public events and the torchlit evening procession. Guidance on the day's itinerary and the procession route willl be available on the official Up Helly Aa website.

    As the festival itself is a private event, press passes to the halls are not generally available but you might be able to get a ticket to the Lerwick Town Hall (see the question above).

    For media queries about Shetland's other fire festivals, your best route for information is to contact the individual Up Helly Aa committees via their social media pages. If there's anything else we can help you with, then please do get in touch at info@shetland.org and we'll do our best to assist you.