As part of our guides, looking at some of the finest, craziest, weirdest and most outlandish festivals in the World, today we are going to take a look at the Up Helly Aa festival which takes place in northern Scotland and the Shetland Islands each year. This spectacular festival of fire occurs on the last Tuesday of January and sees visitors from all over the World head to the chilly northern Scottish lands for a festival like no other. Let’s take a look at the history of the festival and a guide to what you should expect to see if you visit Up Helly Aa.
The festival takes place in around 12 locations but the oldest is the Lernwick celebration, the festival was borne out of the annual Yuletide tradition of tar-barreling. This was a festivity that saw 12 barrels filled with tar being lit on fire and then dragged through the town by sledges and carried by men as they caused mischief throughout the town as people cheered, following the show, everyone would retire the public houses to continue the festivities.
Tar-barreling was outlawed in 1880 and the festival of Up Helly Aa was the festival that replaced it. At first it was just a small torch procession but in 1882, the town of Lernwick significantly increased its procession size for the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh, from that year up to the present day, the festival has been a huge event of fire and festivities.
What You Will See
If you want to visit the festival the here is what you can expect to see.
In the morning you will see the first Jarls, these are men dressed in Viking style dress who will arrive in floats in the shape of ships. The Jarl squads will go for breakfast in the Islesburgh Community Centre before heading on to the Galley Shed and then The British Legion.
The squad will march with their galley floats from the British Legion with pipe and brass bands in tow before arriving in the market cross where the Proclamation of Up Helly Aa is situated. The squads then head up to the ferry terminal where you will get a chance to take some photos of the impressive costumes and their galleys.
Toast are drunk around 1030 as the bands continue playing and then the squads break off into various rooms and halls.
– Day Time
Throughout the day you can enjoy the exhibitions that have been displayed, short movies playing, and the chance to meet some of the Jarls. Grab some food and get ready for the evening festivities.
At 7pm the Jarl quads are given their torches and begin the march, led by the Guizer Jarl squad, the Guizer Jarl is the chief around here. At 730pm, a rocket is fired across the sky of the town to begin the march. The squads then march through the town singing and chanting in an impressive fiery sight.
The group then culminates in the North King George V playing field, they circle the field before congregating in the centre where there is a huge galley ship. You will hear a bugle call and then witness over 1000 torches being thrown into the galley to set it on fire and then a firework display will begin.
As the evening progresses you will see shows and skits taking place all over the town, drinking games, street food and dancing are all on offer for visitors in a night of raucous fun that will go well into the early hours.
As expected, the following day is a public holiday so that everyone can recover from this incredible festival.