Up Helly Aa takes place in Lerwick, the main port of the Shetland Islands, an archipelago over 100 miles off the north coast of Scotland. The festival is the one day of the year when the townspeople embrace their inner Viking and celebrate the ancient culture of those who ruled the British Isles centuries ago. The Shetland Islands are probably the most Scandinavian part of the UK, as they were under Norwegian rule as late as the 15th Century.
While Up Helly Aa might only last a day, falling on the last Tuesday of January each year, the people of Lerwick spend years planning each event, from costume designs to theatrical performances. The main event is a procession in which “Vikings” march through the streets in replicas of their Scandinavian predecessors’ battle dress. They are followed by several hundred torch bearers, or “Guizers” made up of local men, women and children.
The procession is led by the Guizer Jarl, a member of the Up Helly Aa committee who has served at least 15 years. The role is considered a great honour among the people of Lerwick. The Guizer Jarl is distinguished from the rest of the Vikings by a resplendent uniform including a chrome helmet adorned with crow’s wings.
No one knows the exact origins of the festival but it’s believed to have its roots in the era after the post-Napoleonic War, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms. As Lerwick grew the celebrations became more elaborate. The tradition of dressing up like Vikings and carrying torches through the streets is believed to have started in the 1880s and has changed very little over a century later.
The procession still ends with the burning of a full-size replica Viking “galley” (longboat), before festival goers head to the halls and venues around town and continue celebrating into the early hours. Thankfully for the people of Lerwick, the day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday!