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.
In 1824 a visiting Methodist missionary described the scenes he found in Lerwick at Christmas:
The whole town was in an uproar from 12 o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all night – the street was thronged with people, as any fair I ever saw in England.
Today Up Helly Aa is the biggest organised festival of the year, involving a dedicated team of committee members who ensure that the festival runs smoothly and safely. The festivities last for 24 hours on the last Tuesday of January. It is a Viking inspired fire festival that attracts thousands of visitors every year. A torchlit procession, led by the Guizer Jarl (chief Viking) weaves its way around the streets of Lerwick with over 1,000 men carrying burning torches. After the procession, the guizers (as participants are known) heave their burning torches into a replica Viking longship and sing the Norseman’s Home. The atmosphere during the procession is electric as the street lights are extinguished, and visitors throng the streets, jostling for the best view, and the town glows under the light of the burning torches. The smell of paraffin and smoke permeate everything, and the rousing cheers echo around the buildings into the night sky.
After the ceremonial burning, a night of celebration commences as around a dozen public halls open up their doors to welcome the squads (or groups) of guizers to perform a sketch or a dance. These are private, ticketed parties and those attending must get an invite from one of the venue’s hosts or hostesses who organise the after-party. Women are mainly responsible for these parties, and they don’t disappoint, laying on impressive spreads of soup, sandwiches, home bakes and ensuring that everyone is sufficiently fed and watered in order to keep on dancing right into the next day. During these 24 hours, the rule of the town is handed over by the police to the Guizer Jarl, and the Town Hall proudly flies the Raven Banner flag for the duration. For many, Up Helly Aa is the highlight of Shetland’s social calendar, and it is no surprise that the day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday.
January, as anyone who has visited Shetland at this time will know, is punctuated by violent winter storms, driving wind and rain. However, as the organisers boast, “there will be no postponement for weather”, the show must go on. So, come rain or shine, the guisers take to the streets and perform the ritual. In its time, Up Helly Aa has only been cancelled three times: Once for the death of Queen Victoria (1901) and the First and Second World Wars. It has also been postponed three times: Once due to an outbreak of flu and for the deaths of King George V (1936) and ex-Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1965).
Up Helly Aa is also a celebration of the return of the light after a long, dark winter, it marks a turning point in the length of the days after the dark days of winter. By Up Helly Aa, there is a marked difference in the length of the days, and by 5 pm there is still a little light in the sky. After Up Helly Aa the days seem to lengthen more quickly – a welcome sight for Shetlanders in need of spring! But ultimately it’s a celebration of our Viking roots that I discussed in my last blog post that you can read here. The name can be traced back to Uphalliday, a pagan Norse mid-winter celebration.
Lerwick is not the only festival, throughout Shetland between January and March, there are at 12 Fire Festivals that take place, with processions of Vikings and the burning of a replica longship. A full list can be found here.
You can watch a live stream of Up Helly Aa online, and if you follow my Instagram, I will keep you up to date with plans for the live broadcast.
In the meantime I'd like to wish Jarl Liam Summers all the best for his big day and I hope that all the squads and guizers have a brilliant day. Three cheers for the Guizer Jarl!
Hello from Laurie
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