Up Helly Aa

St Ninian's Isle - one of many stunning places to discover along the Shetland coast

It’s a long way to Shetland. When you get there, there’s a good chance it’s probably wet and windy and looking magnificent for all that. Countless islands and inlets make for a never ending coastline to explore, and a culture firmly rooted in the sea. Oh, and there’s the Vikings...

Of all the festivals and traditions around Scotland, Up Helly Aa may be one of the most enigmatic. Various communities around Sheltand have their own Up Helly tradition, the most famous being the one in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of every January. You’ll probably have seen photographs in the papers, or segments on the telly; the torchlight procession, led by a squad of vikings through the centre of the town is famous. It’s really only half the story though. Which is not to say that the procession isn’t epic!

This year there were no less than 900 torchbearers to escort the Jarl’s Squad and their Galley, the Falcon, through the streets to the Burning. It’s a sight not soon forgotten. Visceral and utterly awe inspiring, it assaults all the senses at once, with the wind driving the rain through the ranks, the stench and heat of the paraffin torches, the sound of the band and of the squads revelling in their moment. They’ve earned it.

There are no half measures here, this is not some little parade where old trinkets are brought out of storage every year and traipsed around town. This has taken dozens upon dozens of people months of graft and planning, and in return it gives the occasion a sense of gravity and solidity that it might otherwise lack.

The torches alone took months to prepare. The galley saw a team of over 40 men working several nights a week for months to bring it to a beautiful finish, all for a short journey through town to a fiery end. Each member of the Jarl’s Squad will have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds hand making their Viking uniforms just for this festival. 

With so much time spent together in preparation, the Jarl’s squad is more than just a collection of men dressed as Vikings. When they walk through town it is as one unit, together.

The procession will be what you see on the news, or hear described on the radio, but it marks the beginning of the night, rather than the end. Once the galley is alight, the squads and the crowds all quickly disperse to various community halls around town. The Squads will take it in turn to visit each hall through the night and into the morning. Each has a rehearsed turn to perform on arrival, before sharing a drink with the people in the hall. It’s an impressive feat of organisation, and each and every squad has put time and effort into their routine... Some are better than others, and by 6am some may be getting a bit ragged around the edges! 

Circling the galley, before the burning.

Looking around the hall though, it’s impossible to tell without talking to people who live here and who are just visiting.  This is very much a local festival, but you’ll be welcomed in like an old friend and treated like family. It is the party that tops all parties and a tradition entirely befitting of the Lerwegian’s generously riotous natures. 

Come to Up Helly Aa, come for the procession if that’s what motivates you. You’ll leave remembering the welcome you had at the halls. I’d love to share some photos from that part of the night, but I was having far too much fun to take any.