Heritage and Culture
Up Helly Aa
In the year leading up to this fantastic fire festival, locals are busy at work building an impressive replica Viking boat. Incredible effort and work goes into making every detail of the ship perfect and ready, just in time for the ancient Up Helly Aa festival. Since the 1800s, Shetland have been celebrating the 24th day after Christmas as 'Antonsmas' or 'Up Helly Night'. This annual celebration comprises of a number of fire festivals held in the middle of the winter season, to mark the end of the Yule season.
History of the festival...
The modern Up Helly Aa festival developed from the ancient yule tradition of Tar Barreling, which took place at Christmas and New Year, as well as at Up Helly Aa. Squads of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges, making mischief. After the abolition of tar barreling, around 1874, permission was eventually obtained for torch processions. The first yule torch procession took place in 1876 with the first torch procession for Up Helly Aa taking place in 1881. The following year the torchlit procession was significantly enhanced and institutionalized through a request by a Lerwick civic body, to hold another Up Helly Aa torch procession for the visit of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. The first galley was introduced and burned in 1889 and the honorary role of the 'Jarl' was introduced to the festival in the early twentieth century.
The festival today...
The modern day Up Helly Aa festival involves a main guizer who is dubbed the 'Jarl'. Before you can become a Jarl, you have to complete at minimum of 15 years on a committee, and only one person is elected onto the committee each year. The Jarl is the principal character in the celebration and each Jarl takes their name from a figure in Norse legend. Surrounding the Jarl is a Jarl Squad, which is made up of the Jarl's supporters. It is the principal of many squads and the participants are called guizers.
To begin the procession, torches are thrown into a replica Viking longship or galley. Once the procession is over, the squads of guizers visit local halls and schools, where private parties are held. At each hall, each squad performs its act. This may be anything from a send-up to a popular TV-Show or film, to singing or dancing.
The festival takes place at numerous locations throughout Shetland, currently being celebrated in ten locations: Scalloway, Lerwick, Nesting an Girlsta, Uyeasound, Northmavine, Bressay, Cullivoe, Norwick, the South Mainland and Delting.
Up Helly Aa, a definition...
If we break the name 'Up Helly Aa' down, we can work out what the name means and where it comes from. 'Up' is used, in this sense, to mean that something is coming to an end. This derives from the Old Norse word 'Uppi' which is still used in Faroese and Icelandic, meaning a holiday or festival. 'Helly' refers to a holy day or festival. In the Scottish National Dictionary, the word helly derives from the Old Norse word helgr, meaning 'a series of festive days, especially in the period in which Christmas festivities are held, from 25th December to 5th January. Finaly, 'Aa' means 'all'.
If you're in Scotland this winter and fancy a festival with a difference, why not head up to Shetland for a truly unique experience?