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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRV9fl-xj10

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 2013http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZc50wnOUfY

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 34http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-N-1JtCygI

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

Rampant Rabbitshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8p8RLLTGfo

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!!!!


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  1. Colin says:

    Its got to be the Stormtroopers for me! Excellent.

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