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.

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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.

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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…

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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.)

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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.

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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!



Comments (3)

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  1. jess says:

    AWESOME!!!!!!! AWE!!!! SOME!!!!!

  2. Peg says:

    Jean, that was one of my best nights ever! I’m still so glad we bunked in the same room on that ferry.

    Beautiful write up, and beautiful photos! Makes me wish I was there this year.

  3. Colin says:

    Quite the firestorm… I can almost smell the beards singeing! It really looks like a fantastic festival, I’ve got get up there one of these days.

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