Up Helly Aa is a Viking fire festival held on 29th January this year in the Shetland Islands town of Lerwick. It has been a tradition since the 1800's and takes place every winter almost without exception. The festival reflects the Nordic bloodline that runs through these island peoples. Although the Shetland Islands are considered by some to be a part of Scotland it was not always that way.
The Shetland Islands are located north of Scotland and west of Norway and were a part of Norway until the 15th century. Archaeologists have unearthed more Viking farms in one small area on these islands than in any similar size area of Norway or Sweden.
Up Helly Aa literally means the 'lightening of the year'.
In mid-winter as the night air is crisp and the sky is almost as dark as the ocean, hordes of people carrying torches dressed as Vikings with gleaming axes and helms march through the streets of Lerwick on a mission to set ablaze a great Longship by throwing their torches onto it whilst singing old Nordic songs.
All throughout the year the ship is built in a secret location and the folks involved are called the Jarl Squad. The Jarl Guizer, with his eagle-winged helmet, is the leader of this Viking procession and those that carry torches that are not a part of the Jarl Squad are called Guizers. 'Guising' means to dress up in disguise and is a common yuletide tradition in Scotland.
The Jarl Squad begins their procession through town and moves the longship into place. The festival lasts about twenty-four hours but the burning of the longship only takes around an hour as thousands of torches light the wood on fire.
As the flames burning the longship reach high into the night sky songs are sung and Halls are opened throughout town. Dancing and drinking go on until the next day. The Jarl Squad puts on dancing contests in the halls that members have practiced throughout the year.
Ironically the festival of Up Helly Aa at one time was organized to promote prohibition. Due to this some of the halls for celebrating and dancing do not serve alcohol, although one is allowed to bring one's own alcohol and pay a corkage fee to their bottle throughout the night and day.
Similar celebrations are held all over the Shetland Islands in midwinter. Every town having its own spin on Up Helly Aa. So of course if you missed the main celebration there's always a chance you'll be able to catch a version of this grand festival in another town on the Shetland Islands during midwinter.