Up Helly Aa…

…is something really different and Shetlanders can really get fired up about it. A thousand or more men loyally parade with lit torches through the streets of Lerwick, Shetland. In front of them is their appointed Jarl, a guiding light for his followers who all shout comradely cheers and sing songs of enthusiasm during this festival of fire. These rivers of men pull an effigy of a Viking ship to it final destruction by fire in the heart of the city. Up Helly Aa represents norsk tradition, fire and comradeship unlike anywhere else. Glowing…fervent…forceful and with proud intent.

uphellyaa01Photo: The Jarl parades his men through the conquered streets of Lerwick, Shetland during Up Helly Aa.

Traditionally, there is some evidence of this Shetlandic celebration that points to the early rural 19th century. A rowdy celebration was noted in 1824, by a visiting missionary where he documented that midnight brought an uproar of drums, horns, banging of pots, discharging of guns, screams and some drinking and fighting to the town. At that time, this was around Christmas Eve, during the darkest part of the year.

The celebration grew bolder during the 1840’s. Groups of masked men had formed and they ran the small cobblestone streets of Lerwick dragging barrels or tubs of burning tar in their wake. Eventually, these groups became rivals and the tradition accumulated to an annoying degree. Many complaints were heard arguing the dangers and the mess that was left in town.

Then around the latter half of the 19th century, and up to WW I, changes came about with new ideas and more structure. Here the name Up Helly Aa, apparently having Norsk origins as does Shetland, came to be used and rival gangs became coherent, working together and forming a unified group of individual squads. “Guizing” came about and the squads of men introduced elaborate disguises; not so uncommon as dressed as woman. The fire festival was moved to the end of January, traditionally the last Tuesday of the month, and a Viking theme with the squads being lead by a common leader, the Jarl, was permanently sanctioned.

uphellyaa03Photo: A firey fate awaits the Viking galley in the evening finale of Up Helly Aa celebrations.

And so it still is today. For Up Helly Aa, Shetland has a “national holiday” with schools closing and people getting free from work. Tuesday morning, the Jarl and his men parade through the streets of Lerwick, as if the town had been invaded by Vikings and the conquerors meet the conquered. During the day, the Jarl and squads pay visits to halls and organizations and, finishing off the day, a grand parade unlike one could imagine, weaves its fiery self around the streets to the final burning of a Viking galley to the awe of spectators and long distant visitors.

uphellyaa06-copyPhoto: Torches from a thousand men seal the fate of the Viking galley at Up Helly Aa, Shetland

The rest of the night is one whopping all night party. The squads visit pubs and halls and enjoy a Viking evening until the next morning. Lerwick can then rest. The squads retreat for a well deserved rest but carrying thoughts, plans and new ideas for the next coming Up Helly Aa 2010. Same month, same day; probably a little better and impressive!

With Up Helly Aa, I was impressed with the rows and rows of torches, flowing along the darkened streets of Lerwick, and the well organized day/evening events that were brought about by truly dedicated volunteers who obviously had fun doing it all. I would highly recommend a visit at least once in a lifetime…perhaps, twice or more to really enjoy Up Helly Aa and Shetland.

If the spirits of early Vikings were gathered on the hills surrounding Lerwick and watched the evening procession, I would imagine they would nod to each other, wink an eye and smile with unanimous approval!

uphellyaavy03-copyPhoto: Up Helly Aa is a midwinter Festival of Fire on Shetland

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