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Lerwick Up Helly Aa

For 24 hours, on the last Tuesday of January, Lerwick leads the way for annual community celebrations of Shetland’s Viking heritage.

Please note that Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2021 is cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The next event will be in January 2022.

"There will be no postponement for weather". That's a defiant boast by Shetland's biggest fire festival, considering it's held in mid-winter on the same latitude as southern Greenland. But it's true: gales, sleet and snow have never yet stopped the Up Helly Aa guizers of Lerwick from burning their Viking galley - and then dancing the dawn away.

Up Helly Aa is a superb spectacle, a celebration of Shetland history, and a triumphant demonstration of islanders' skills and spirit. This northern Mardi Gras, run entirely by volunteers, lasts just one day (and all the following night). But it takes several thousand people 364 days to organise. Much of the preparation is in strictest secrecy. The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival, the 'Guizer Jarl', will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas he'll represent.

It sounds wonderful, and it is; but if you miss the Lerwick festival, don’t worry: from Sumburgh in the South Mainland to Norwick in Unst, there are local versions of Up Helly Aa, all welcoming to visitors and each with its own unique identity.

Shetland is so peaceful and quiet - until Up Helly Aa that is, which was an amazing experience that I'll never forget.

The Jarl - Lord of Lerwick for a day and a night

Lerwick’s Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of his life for 15 years or more, before he dons his raven-winged helmet, grabs axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon. Along with the rest of the committed, volunteer crew, he’ll have spent thousands of hours planning and preparing each and every detail of Up Helly Aa and its associated events, until his big day dawns.

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, almost 1,000 heavily-disguised men, in groups, known as ‘squads’, form ranks in the darkened streets of Shetland’s capital. Only the lead, or Jarl Squad, wear Viking dress. The rest are in costumes ranging from the almost sublime to the totally ridiculous. The women of Lerwick play a huge part in the festival - organising, hosting at the halls, preparing and catering, and having a wonderful time in what, for many, is the social highlight of the year. 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! Many women say they have no desire to be in squads or take part in the procession itself though, outside of Lerwick, this is commonplace and some would like the same to be true in ‘da toon’.

Each guizer shoulders a stout fencing post, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking. On the stroke of 7.30pm, a signal rocket bursts over the 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 him to the burning site, through a crowd of 5,000 spectators or more.

The guizers circle the dragon ship in a slow-motion Catherine Wheel of fire. Another rocket explodes overhead. The Jarl leaves his ship, to a crescendo of cheers. A bugle call sounds, and then the torches are hurled into the galley.

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.

Tears of mirth are more likely as the night rolls on and 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. In tribute to the festival’s origins, in some halls alcohol must be handed in by guests on arrival and stored safely in a separate room to be accessed on request.

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 at least one of the ladies in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks.

It's a fast and furious night - and a guizer who arrives home with a completely clear head before 8.30am the next morning is lucky. Not surprisingly, The day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday. Lerwick seems like a ghost town, but by evening the hardier merrymakers are out dancing again, this time at the 'Guizer's Hop'.

That's not the end of it. Throughout the rest of the winter each gang of guizers hold their own 'squad dances' for family and friends. By early autumn, there are the first meetings to arrange the next year's performance, while at the Galley Shed in St Sunniva Street the shipwrights, carpenters and their helpers start work on the new galley, not forgetting 'the boys who make the torches'.

Lerwick Up Helly Aa may be the biggest fire festival, but it's by no means the only one. From the start of January until early March, the ‘country’ Up Helly Aas take place throughout the isles, all of them rooted in their local communities and celebrating the gradual lightening of the year. In Lerwick, there's also the Junior Up Helly Aa celebration, which is a mini version of the main Lerwick Up Helly Aa. There's a junior jarl squad and a short version of the torch-lit street parade, featuring secondary school pupils, which takes place just before the main Lerwick procession.

'From grand old Viking centuries, Up Helly Aa has come...' That's what the guizers sing but in fact the festival is only just over 100 years old in its present, highly organised form. In the 19th century, Up Helly Aa was often riotous. Special constables were called in to curb trigger-happy drunks firing guns in the air - and dragging a blazing tar barrel through the streets, sometimes leaving it on the doorstep of the year's least popular worthy burgher. Today's festival is much better behaved.

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Fire, feasting and fancy dress

The ingredients of Up Helly Aa go back 12 centuries and more - fire, feasting, fancy dress and, above all, fun. The torch-lit procession and galley burning echo pagan Norse rituals at the cremation of great chieftains, and religious ceremonies to mark the Sun's return after the winter solstice.

Elaborate disguise was part of prehistoric fertility rites. Medieval Shetland guizers were called 'skeklers' and wore costumes of straw. The feasting and dancing continue saga traditions from the winter drinking halls of Viking warriors, while the satirical 'Bill' or proclamation, lampooning local worthies and fixed to the Lerwick Market Cross on Up Helly Aa morning, has precedents in the sharp wit of the Norse skalds.

If you should miss the Lerwick Up Helly Aa (or if it gives you the taste for more of the same) - there are another eleven fire festivals in various districts of Shetland during the late winter. All are open to male and female guizers and often feature Viking princesses. The South Mainland Up Helly Aa - affectionately know by the acronym SMUHA - is so far the only adult festival to feature a female Jarl, although the excellent Walls Junior Up Helly Aa has had several!

Experience 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 - or sign up to our newsletter - to stay up to date with plans for live broadcasts.

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

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 newspaper 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.

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