For 24 hours on the last Tuesday of January Lerwick is the location of Shetland's biggest annual fire festival.

30 Jan 2024, 7:30pm

What is Lerwick Up Helly Aa?

Lerwick 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' (representing the Viking chief), will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas they'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.

What actually happens at Up Helly Aa?

Lerwick’s Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of their life for 15 years or more, before donning a raven-winged helmet, grabbing axe and shield, and embarking 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.

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, almost 1,000 heavily-disguised torch-bearers, in groups, known as ‘squads’, form ranks in the darkened streets of Shetland’s capital. Only the lead, or Jarl's Squad, wears Viking dress. The rest are in costumes ranging from the almost sublime to the totally ridiculous.

Even those not taking part in the torchlight procession can 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.

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!

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.

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.

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 mutton soup and bannocks.

Find out more

How can I 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.

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.

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.

What else can I see and do in Shetland during fire festival season?

There are often lots of live music sessions, Sunday teas and other events held around Shetland's fire festivals. You can find out what's on during your visit at The Shetland Times or at VisitScotland's Lerwick iCentre.

What are the origins of Up Helly Aa in Shetland?

'From grand old Viking centuries, Up Helly Aa has come...' That's what the guizers sing but in fact the festival is just over 140 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.

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.