Archive for January, 2014

Up Helly Aa - Music & Halls

Up Helly Aa – Music & Halls

This is going to be  very different kind of post for me as all the images are actually video clips, but I hope that the format will give you a wee peek through the looking glass to the other side of Up Helly Aa. I must confess I did pinch these from YouTube as I was video-less at this time last year, and still photos just would not do this madness justice.

From the period of 17th century to the late 19th century, Lerwick enjoyed/endured many of the old Yule traditions of mischief and misrule, with Up Hella Aa signifying the last night and climax of the season.  Many of these these activities included significant damage to property as rowdy young men would break windows, tar doorways and even launch dead cats from canons (good times..good times).   To cover their tracks,  pranksters would often disguise themselves or at the very least cover their faces to avoid the obvious fact that in a very small community everyone knows everyone else.

In the early 19th century some bright spark had the great idea that if they took a barrel (of which they had plenty as this was during the herring boom), filled it with tar, lit it on fire and dragged it through the narrow streets of the town,  it was sure to be a huge hit.  And it was…for some, not so much for the wealthy merchants whose homes and shops were often on the receiving of the damage.  Laws were passed to abolish this practice but were mostly ignored.  At some point in mid century the barrel was replaced with a crate from easier dragging.

About the time that the great and good of Lerwick had had it with the annual debauchery, an ancient document covering the history of the islands under Nordic rule between the 9th and the 15th centuries was first translated into English. This magnificent document known as The Orkneyinga Saga (a great read) utterly captured the imagination and re-ignited pride in the islander’s Viking heritage.  C’est viola, many of the destructive elements of Yuletime mis-rule were re-interpreted in more socially acceptable practices to reflect the more noble elements of their fierce and brave forefathers.  Everybody was happy.

For the Viking elements, songbooks and sheet music were written to craft the new traditions and are sung heartily throughout the day and night by the Jarl Squad. The outfits took shape and the galley boat was created as a focal point to gather around and of course, set on fire!

Up Helly Aa Song

Here is what the official Up Helly Aa Song (with accompanying words) sounds like with the Brass Band. ( Just click on the Youtube link).  Very rousing stuff.

 toll clock 2013

But here is the fantastic Stevie and his Jarl Squad.  They keep this amount of energy up as the sing…all day and all night!

Peg's VideoPeg’s Video – Galley Song

We caught up with the Jarl Squad later at about 4:30 and the museum.  This is my friend Peg’s video and boy – they were still going strong!

So, while the very outward public display is all Viking, the elements of disguise, mischief and light-hearted misrule are embraced by the Squad’s performances in the Halls.  Each Squad has to submit their idea to the Up Helly Aa committee months in advance to ensure there are no duplicates – for this year or any from the past.  Most of the themes have some inside joke or reference that would be clear to those within the community.  Others…well, you be the judge.

Remember, these guys have to perform this AT LEAST 12 times throughout the night at each of the Halls.  They also have to keep their faces covered and can not disgrace themselves or their squad, all while imbibing a good amount of drink and being carted around in the back of empty moving vans between locations.  All of the Hall have bands that perform between the Squads to give everyone a chance to dance and the Hostesses of the Halls have plenty of food handy to keep everyone going until 8:00 am.  Wednesday is a holiday for all!

Gaz VadarGaz Vadar and the Bad Boy Stormtroopers

Now, brace yourself, this is where things get good and crazy, but these performances by the Squads are every bit as much of Up Helly Aa as the Vikings and Galley.   This is a clip that is by far one of the most well done skits I could find online.  Not to shabby eh?!

Sqaud 34

 These guys are a bit more the norm of the type of routine that you are likely to see.

Rampant Rabbits

And then some…well, they are about what you would expect from a a bunch of blokes charged with coming up with a dance routine with probably minimal effort.  Also, I have never seen such such a wide array of man-size fluffy animal suits in my life.  Again, google Lerwick, Shetland and just see how in tarnation one wee place so far in the middle of the North Atlantic can be home to such madness!

To only see the grand Viking element of the celebration and miss this unbelievably bizarre all night party would be like going to a wedding and missing out on the reception .  I cannot wait to get back there again as soon as possible!!!!


Up Helly Aa - Processions & Galley Burning

Up Helly Aa – Processions & Galley Burning

On my ferry journey to Shetland, I met a fabulous woman named Peg (who just happened to be American and also had a blog) and her lovely daughter Salem, so I had some fun buddies to enjoy the processions with.  After a very fun and full day of enjoying the town of Lerwick, the darkness descended meaning the next chapter of the festivities would soon commence.


First up at 5:30 pm was the Junior Procession.  I have to say, seeing the lads in their finery all carrying fiery torches was a pretty impressive sight!  If I didn’t know that there was to a be another larger procession later, I would not have felt hard done by to have just witnessed this one.

6 UHA BP 2 - 600

Men who have been in Jarl Guards from previous years served as Marshalls for the Junior Procession, which was not only handy for safety’s sake but it give them a chance to break out their fabulous outfits again.

8 UHA BP 2 - 600

While it was still dry for the procession, the wind was really beginning to pick up at this stage.


The boys procession swirled into the walled park that held their galley and climaxed as they tossed their lit torches on it to set it ablaze.  A very impressive display from the lads who will no doubt continue on into the men’s squads in years to come.  It was just as we were trying to get our pictures of the burning galley that a misty rain began to descend.

Aside from being great company, my new friends were kind enough to invite me to join them at their B&B, a mere two blocks from the park were the processions ended and the galleys set alight.  We rushed back inside to put more layers on and change camera batteries to ready ourselves for the big event.  We had been so pleased with our location for the Junior Procession that we went back to stake out our same spots.  This was a full 45 minutes before the Men’s Procession was due to start.

We had no sooner rocked up to claim our digs than the most unbelievable, freezing-cold hurricane kicked up that was to last the rest of the night.

Now, I have seen some wild weather in my day, but I have never stood, hunched over, nestled into the backs of strangers (as others nestled into mine) for the slightest bit of protection from the elements.  I could only image that we looked just like the penguins at the beginning of Happy Feet as the wind whipped around us and the rain mercilessly soaked through every layer we had so futilely put on.  And there we stayed…and stayed…and stayed…

11 UHA BP 2 - 600

It rained so hard it hurt as you would raise your head 2 inches from the nape of someone’s neck just to see if any torches could be seen, but at long last we were rewarded!  (I bet that this guy was sorely regretting his bare caveman-themed choice of costume on this occasion.)

10 UHA BP 2 - 600

I don’t know if you have happened to have seen 1,000 men carrying lit torches snaking their way through a blacked out town during a hurricane, but just in case you haven’t I can assure you it is AWESOME!!!!!!!

Just for a bit of perspective, there are about 23,000 people in Shetland in total from all the islands.  Lerwick as the most populous town has a population just under 7,000 souls.  Out of this community, not counting girls of all ages, boys under the age of 16, Senior Citizens/ OAPs and any disinterested parties, they can STILL muster 1,000 men able and willing to march in the freezing, soaking blackness carrying a lit torch. Pretty impressive any way you slice it.


My camera was not terribly pleased with the wet and cold so I just managed to snap a few pictures of the Squads streaming by as they entered the park.  My friend Peg of A Kilt and a Camera photography and travel blog took some really fantastic images of this event, but I really struggled with numbs hands, driving rain, flames and limited photography skills.


The Squads began their hypnotic swirling around the galley, singing loudly and accompanied by the Brass Band.


Another maroon blast cracked through the night which was the signal to burn that boat down!  The men closest in the circle launched their torches high into the air to land on the deck of the galley.  They then duck down and fade to the back of the pack creating room for the next wave to move safely to the galley to do the same.  So seamless is this transition that all the spectator can see is the steady stream of torches being tossed for about 5 solid minutes as the flames creep higher and higher up engulfing the galley.


And boy does that baby burn!  Custom dictates that everyone stay and watch the fire until the head of the dragon finally falls off.  As spectacular as it was, given the weather there were a fair few of us silently begging for this guy to topple.

16 UHA BP 2 - 600

This ends the public part of the event and it is what most tourists think of as the and of Up Helly Aa…. if only they realised that the real party was just about to begin!



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