About This Festival
The Shetlands, Scotland’s northernmost islands, have long been an ideal target for Vikings, but today their only invaders are festival-goers. The last Tuesday of every January, Lerwick, the islands’ capital, is overtaken by costumed warriors bearing torches, which they use to set a traditional longboat aflame.
Fire & Ice
The weather-savaged Shetland Islands are a rugged outpost in the North Atlantic, positioned strategically between Scotland and Norway. The early settlers, the Monks of St. Ninian’s Island, stockpiled gold, silver and precious manuscripts, and were visible targets ripe for the looting. They buried so much treasure that much of it wasn’t discovered until 1958. Word got out to the fortune-hungry Vikings, and when they depleted their resources, plundering turned into full-scale invasions. The Shetlands were colonized sometime around the 8th century and remained at the hands of the Norse until it was pawned back to Scotland in the 15th century. Viking pride, however, remains strong.
Up Helly Aa originally started as a Yule-time party in which sailors and soldiers would cause general havoc in the streets, armed with a dangerous combination of booze and fire. Things got a little out of hand and eventually themes, order and a date farther from the holiday season were instated. In 1824, a visiting Methodist missionary said this about the celebration. “The whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o'clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night—the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.”
Unfortunately, things got worse before they got better. Burning tar barrels was introduced around 1840, and in 1870, an elite cabal of party planners introduced a Viking theme and the element of disguise (known as guizing), in which festival-goers don full-horned regalia. They named it Up Helly Aa. The tar-barreling practice evolved into a glorious yet ominous torch-lit procession through town.
Follow the Leader
The Guizer Jarl is the Chief Guizer, the leader of the Jarl squad who portrays the Vikings for the day. The first Up Helly Aa leader was elected by his fellow guizers in 1882 and was given the title of Worthy Chief Guizer. His role became increasingly important, and by 1906 it was decided the chief needed a Viking suit of armor and the title Guizer Jarl. Every Jarl wears the same handed-down suit, replete with helmet, battle axe, shield and body armor. Mercifully for today’s less-hardy gentlemen, the original suit, made mostly of silver, has been traded for chromium-plated battle hardware. It’s a great honor to be nominated Jarl, and it can be more than 12 years in the making.
The Guizer Jarl and his Jarl squad design their own kirtle and cloak in preparation for the main event. It’s a rite of passage for a Shetlander to be invited to join a Jarl squad, and preparations for the big day can start as early as 2 years prior. The tradition of the Jarl squad began in the 1920s, and since then the Jarl’s shield is carefully re-designed and re-manufactured to fit in with the year’s theme.
The introduction of order to this night of revelry has had some charming, even amusing by-products. For example, every Up Helly Aa has at its core a bill, drafted specifically for that year’s festivities. Since 1899, this bill conveys the instructions for the event, including event times, curfews and prohibitions. It’s produced in secret by a committee of 17 volunteers, hand-picked by the guizers to organize and run the festival. At 6am the day of the event, the bill is erected in the middle of town for all to read (it often includes a few jokes) and then duly removed before the procession begins.
The procession is the main event and starts around 7:30pm. Islanders are proud to tell you that the event “has never been cancelled because of the weather.” You might disagree if caught in a winter storm, but they are more than up for it and revel in adversity. More than 1,000 torches are carried by as many guizers along a carefully determined route through the middle of Lerwick. It feels both celebratory and solemn, like an inspiring recreation of a Viking funeral. The centerpiece of the procession is the 9-meter-long galley, or Viking longboat, constructed and painted by hand specifically for Up Helly Aa. This lovingly crafted galley, however, is burnt to a crisp during the procession. The Vikings circle around the dragon-headed ship and toss all the torches into the galley. After the bonfire, the festivities move on to the invite-only Viking halls, where it’s a drink-until-dawn event complete with skits. Due to the historic lack of females in Lerwick, the after-parties in the local halls are famous for cross-dressing Vikings, thus the nickname Transvestite Tuesday.