Up Helly Aa galley burning following the Viking procession. Photo: Jon Pulley.
Up Helly Aa is almost upon us and you can feel excitement levels in the town growing as people make ready for, what is to some, the social event of the year. Up Helly Aa, despite what is often believed, is not an ancient festival passed down from Norse times, but it is a festival with its roots in Shetland’s Victorian era. And like any proper Victorian soiree, theatrical pomp and ceremony were allowed unbridled power to shine.
Up Helly Aa’s roots can be found in the 19th-century tradition of ‘tar-barrelling’, a practice which saw the town’s young men rolling burning barrels of tar through the narrow streets of Lerwick. This was banned in 1874 as it was dangerous and caused damage to local properties and humiliated the law-enforcers who were often tricked by the rowdy youths and locked into an endless game of ‘cat-and-mouse’. It has been argued that following the Napoleonic Wars, the men returning had developed a taste for firearms and so began the tradition. In the past, Shetland followed the Julian calendar long after the rest of the world adopted the Gregorian calendar. Christmas was held on the 5th January, New Year on the 12th and Up Helly Aa (or Uphellia) was held 24 days after Aald Yule, on the 29th January. However, the act of tar-barrelling might occur on any of these occasions.
Scalloway Fire Festival galley burning 2017.
The differences between Shetland and the rest of Scotland can be quite striking. Many visitors arrive here expecting the full Scottish treatment – the haggis, the kilts and the bagpipes – and I find myself quickly explaining to them that much of the culture and tradition in Shetland stems from the close ties that we had with Scandinavia in the past and that actually, we have only been part of Scotland for some 550 years.
To understand this unusual relationship, we must travel back in time to about 850 AD and the arrival of the Vikings in Shetland. Their arrival and subsequent settlement has become known as the Norse period. This era of Scandinavian rule brought significant changes, much of which is still evident, and celebrated, here today. Today marks the first of the season’s Fire Festivals which kicks off in Scalloway and includes a Viking parade and burning of a replica Viking longship in the picturesque harbour. Throughout Shetland, there are ten Up Helly Aa/Fire Festival celebrations between January and March.
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