Up Helly Aa – Introduction

There just ain’t no getting around the fact that this post is going to be a doozy!  I tried, I have really, really tried to get the story, the images and the adventure that is Up Helly Aa into a single blog post but it is just not possible.  So instead, there will be four; Introduction, Procession & Galley Burning,  Music & Halls, and then Shetland’s Gems.  So without further ado, please let me introduce you to Europe’s Biggest Fire Festival and the most visually stunning thing I have ever had the privilege to bear to witness to… Up Helly Aa!

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One year ago today I packed myself onto a ferry to take a verrrrryyyyyy rough 12 hours boat ride to reach the group of islands half-way between mainland Scotland and Norway known as Shetland. Even though I was a bundle of nerves and missing my babies…I was on an adventure and couldn’t have been more excited.

Up Helly Aa is the kind of event that you hear about when folks get talking about various tall tales, and even most Scots only ever see the odd photo or two of a Viking galley engulfed in flames on the BBC website. So it was all I could do not to pinch myself as I found myself catching the first glimpse of the hand crafted galley through the gathering crowds on  their march to the Market Cross to begin the festivities.


Most people just think of Up Helly Aa as a fire festival where the men of Lerwick dress as Vikings and set fire to a galley. That in and of itself would be groovy enough, but it is actually a fantastically choreographed series of events, displays and performances that embrace several chapters of the island’s history and reaffirms the communities bonds in an annual raucous and good-natured party.

For starters, the men of Lerwick (there are other Up Helly Aa celebrations throughout Shetland but Lerwick is the biggest by far) organise themselves into Squads.  These are groups of friends centered around work or family that can range in size from about 16-25 and are primarily social groups (similar to the Crewes of Mardi Gras). The number of Squads varies but there are usually in the region of about 45 Squads at any given time.

Every year since 1882 one man assumes the title of  Guizer Jarl (meaning Earl or Chieftain) but he may have been selected for that role years in advance.  It is his squad that will take top honours and don the bespoke Viking regalia and build the galley to be set aflame.  To be selected as the Guizer Jarl (guizer is a term that means in disguise) is the equivalent of being selected as MVP/ Man of the Match, Prom King & winning an Oscar all rolled into one.  It is HUGE.  It is so big that the people of Lerwick can name  all of the Guizers Jarls and which year they held that honour similar to how others might collect sports cards.  In addition to his regular squad, the Guizer Jarl can invite others friends and family to join – an incredible once in a lifetime honour – swelling the size of the Jarl Squad to around 50-70!

7 UHA BP 1 - 600Up Helly Aa is held on the last Tuesday of January and the day begins with the presentation of “The Bill”.  This hand painted placard is a very tongue in cheek proclamation of the Guizer Jarl that is loaded with jokes and jibes of people and events within the community for the past year.  These can cut very close to the bone but it also quite a big deal to make it into the Bill.  It is always signed with the credo “We Axe for What We Want”.  I wanted to go and see the actual unveiling but was gently informed that “it usually happens around 5:00 am by lads that have been up all night drinking, and well…it’s not what you would call a spectator sport”!

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While some aspects of what has become Up Helly Aa go back several hundreds of years, much of the modern celebration was developed in the 1880s.  As such, the music and songs (of which there are loads) date to that era as well.  The Brass Band is integral part of the celebration and it is when they strike up that the people of Lerwick know that Up Helly Aa has begun at last.

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The Brass Band leads the jubilant Jarl Squad ( who have all grown big bushy beards in the past year) past the Bill with an endless chorus of “ARRRRGGGGHH” emitting from the men as they raise the axes aloft.


There is a Junior Jarl Squad as well and there are right in the festivities with their own Junior Jarl. Later in the evening they will lead their own procession of boys squads and set fire to a smaller galley.

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But for the boys, men and spectators alike, the atmosphere is incredible.  They Jarl Squad look like all their Christmases have come at once and they are having a ball! They are on display and loving every minute of it as they head down to their photo call at the Bressay Ferry Terminal.


While the Brass Band leads the procession the Pipe & Drum Band bring up the rear.  The amount of music, cheering and shouting all ringing off the wall of the narrow street just brings the visceral excitement to an amazing level….and this is all before 10:00 am!

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The Jarl Squad climb aboard their short-lived but beautifully made galley and pose for a fair few rounds of photos – still shouting “AAARRRGGGHH” throughout.

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This is the Guizer Jarl himself, Stevie Grant pictured here enjoying the gloriously bright clear morning (it didn’t last).

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After the group picture, everyone breaks up for a short chance to see family and friends and have a few more photos taken.  The break doesn’t last long as there is a serious schedule of processing and visiting of schools and hospitals to attend.

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The Viking costumes are just amazing in their craftsmanship and detail, and the members of the Jarl Squad are just proud as peacocks to be wearing them.  When I asked this member of the Jarl Squad (Andrew Aiken) for his picture, he happily obliged but his female companions just rolled their eyes and told me to “not encourage him”, poor thing! (I believe it can be quite a long year for the partners and families of those in the Jarl Squad.)


With their break over, the Procession reconvenes to march out to a full schedule of stops and visits.  Bringing the whole show of music, songs and shouting with them at every stop.

20 UHA BP 1 - 600While it is still a school day, absolutely everybody comes out to welcome the Jarl Squad and cheers them on for this first chapter in the festivities.


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  1. Margy says:

    post again soon! very festive!

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