Up Helly Aa: A Scottish Tradition and a town on fire


first pic

Photo cred: uphellyaa.org

 Picture this: It’s late January in Scotland and from your hotel window you see what appears to be thousands of men march past in varying degrees of viking garb carrying weapons and chanting in unison. The sleepy town of Lerwick once darkened by the night sky, now lit orange and yellow with the glow of fire. A large wooden galley in the shape of a dragon sits on a lake, built solely for the purpose of the evening’s festivities. Eventually, the marching stops and all of the heavily costumed men or guizers led by a man in an ornate raven-feathered helmet, chants above them all in a rousing call and response as voices rise higher and higher.

 All at once, the town is flooded with silence. The Jarl, the leader of the group elected by fellow guizers (donning the raven-feathered helmet) makes a signal and a bugle horn is sounded- thousands of torches are thrown onto the dragon boat. This is Up Helly Aa.


Lerwick,Scotland-The burning of the boat. Photo cred: David Gifford photography

 Up Helly Aa, despite being a fairly modern holiday, has a rich history. Celebrated in the Shetland region of Scotland with its origins dating back to the early 1800’s, it is celebrated in a total of nine Shetland towns, the largest celebration being held in Lerwick. Up helly aa was at first a week long event with very little organization and plenty of drinking, chanting, dancing and merriment. In older times, non-participating villagers would open up their homes for the drunken men to sleep or eat food and recharge for another round of revelry. The holiday is celebrated on the last Tuesday of January in order to commemorate the end of the yule season.

 Up Helly Aa consists of 3 main events; The burning of the boat, the procession, and the grand feasts and performances in town halls. For four months, thousands of townspeople combine resources, time and skill to build the ornate dragon galley that gets burned down by torch fire at the beginning of the festivities.

2nd pic

 Photo cred: uphellyaa.org

 The procession begins thereafter where all men sporting the custom uniform of the year carry lighted torches around the town parading to the song of Up Helly Aa whose chorus goes:

“Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,

Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;

Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past;

We answer it “A-oi”!

Roll their glory down the ages,

Sons of warriors and sages,

When the fight for Freedom rages,

Be bold and strong as they!”

 3rd pic

Lerwick town hall where the Jarl Guizer is granted “freedom of the town for 24 hours. Photo cred: David Gifford Photography

 Town halls open up for themed parties in which members of different guizers (cleverly named for their viking disguises) perform their skits for rowdy crowds. Most of these hall parties are pretty exclusive with a few exceptions. Some halls are open to the public for those who purchase a ticket to participate in the festivities. Here, eating, drinking and dancing takes place-and it is the goal of each guizer to dance with at least one lady in the hall.

 The next morning, those in a state of hangover and exhaustion from the night prior get an entire day to recover-the Wednesday after is the actual Up Helly Aa day where school, work and most shops are closed for the holiday. On Thursday, everything returns to normal; the ferocious viking men of Up Helly Aa go back to their day jobs, the pungent odor of soot eventually wafts from the air, and preparation for the next year’s Up Helly Aa begin in Autumn.

(The Town of Lerwick) Photo cred: Redbubble.com