Where: Shetland, Scotland, UK.
Every year, on the last Tuesday of January, the legend of Scottish Vikings comes alive on the streets of the various towns in Shetland as the island prepares for its biggest fire festival called ‘Up Helly Aa’ festival. The festival is based on the midwinter boisterous ‘Yule tradition’, which consisted of tar barreling, organized during the 18th century. The tar barreling used to take place during ‘Christmas’, ‘New Year’ & ‘Up Helly Aa’.
The current manifestation of ‘Up Helly Aa’ festival significantly differs from its original form. The current celebration features a torch procession of multiple squads of ‘Guizers’donning variety of themed costumes through the town streets. Torching up a replica of Viking Galley using the torches carried by the squads of guizers is the highlight of this fun festival. A Number of events, then take place throughout the various halls in town followed by private parties which last till the wee hours!
The festival is celebrated all across Shetland, including Lerwick, Nesting, Girlsta, Scalloway, Northmavine, Bressay, Cullivoe, Norwick, Uyeasound & the South Mainland & Delting.
Why They Celebrate It?
Although the festival of ‘Up Helly Aa’ has its roots in the age-old Yule traditions, the festival is quite young! The older Yule tradition, called ‘Tar Barreling’ laid the foundations for the ‘Up Helly Aa’ celebrations. The tar barreling consisted of dragging the barrels of burning tar through the town streets on toboggans while yelling & cursing loudly. The procession of the burning barrels was banned between 1874 to 1880 due to the security issues as on most of the occasions, the procession used to take a form of riots & turmoil amongst the merrymakers!
The thought of changing the unruly nature of the festival came to surface for the first time in1870, after which, significant steps were taken in order to make the festival very much sociable! As a part of the transformation, the festival name was changed to ‘Up Helly Aa’ & a fix day was appointed for the annual celebration. On top of this, other vital elements such as the idea of guizers & torchlight procession were also introduced. The first torchlight procession took place in 1876, whereas, the ‘Viking’ theme was added in 1877 to give the festival a grander look. However, the Viking ship called ‘Galley’, which has now become the highlight of the festival, was introduced in 1880s, while another attraction- a Guizer Jarl, skipper of all guizers, entered into the setup after 1906!
Although, the festival was never cancelled or postponed due to the bad weather conditions, other factors such as, world wars & the period of depression did hampered the celebration! The festivity started taking shape after WWII when it was institutionalized, which helped it to grow in size to become more elaborate!
How They Celebrate It?
The festival of ‘Up Helly Aa’ boasts the demonstration of Shetland history. The revelers who participate in the torch procession are called as the ‘Guizers’. All Guizers arrange themselves into various squads & every squad has its own theme for designing costumes. On the festive eve, over 800 guizers gather on the town road for the torch marching through the town. The commander of all the guizers, termed as ‘Jarl’, who dresses like a Viking leader is chosen amongst the most veteran guizers who have been attending the festival for the past more than 15 years.
At the stroke of 7.30PM, the rocket blows over the Town Hall to mark the start of the procession. The spectacular procession of the blazing torches begins under the command of the ‘Jarl’, who stands at the helm of his Viking galley & leads his men from the front. The Jarl’s Squad follows the lead of ‘Jarl’ while other squads trails the Jarl’s squad. The procession culminates at a pre-decided burning site where thousands of people wait for the festival’s climax- The Burning of Galley!
Burning of the Galley:
All the guizers encircle the dragonship upon arriving at the final spot of the procession. The ‘Jarl’ & his squad get down from the galley amidst loud cheer from the guizers & they all sing the traditional ‘Up Helly Aa’ song. The torches are then hurled into the galley & in no time, the blazing fire surrounds the galley.
Feasts at Town Halls:
Once the galley has burned down completely, the guizers start singing the traditional song- ‘The Norseman Home’ in unison before dispersing off for visiting the halls hosting private parties for the Vikings! Every guizer squad visits all the official party-halls at random to present their acts in front of the invited guests & to share a drink with them. Every squad has its own act which can include various types of entertainments such as a dance, a skit on folklore or even a scene from popular TV show. Every guizer is obliged to dance with at least one lady in the hall before sipping another round of Dram!
The fiesta remains on till every squad visits each hall in the town, which more often than not, continues till the next day morning. The celebration doesn’t culminate here, the following day, which happens to be a public holiday, brings even more revelry! The second day is called as the ‘Guizer’s Hop’ & it features more dances, celebration & a grand party at the end of the day. The performances of various Guizer squads, however, stays on throughout the remaining days of the winter season, during which, the guizers perform their own ‘Squad Dances’ for their families & friends.
With the rise of autumn, all the guizers get back to the work & meetings are held to figure out the themes & the performances for the next year’s ‘Up Helly Aa’, whereas, the organizers return to the Galley shed in order to construct yet another Viking ship for the upcoming fete. All the guizers, thus get ready for another extravaganza & start pouring their innovative ideas to make their performance stand apart than their counterparts!