What a week! As I sit here trying, in my head, to put into words my Up Helly Aa experience I am struggling and I’ve no idea how long this post will take to write.
Picture this: a festival that goes against all health and safety in 2017 – thousands of people lining the streets of Lerwick with no barriers to keep them from the vikings and their galley during the processions. Plunging the town into darkness and turning off all the street lamps along the route where crowds of people wait to see the men of the town parade along with burning torches. Aforementioned men, nearly one thousand of them, walking the streets with paraffin fueled torches in high winds and then setting fire to the galley in a play park.
It all sounds crazy and there is no way if you or I wanted to start a festival like this today, would it be allowed. Thankfully this tradition started in the 1800’s and happens each year in Shetland on the last Tuesday in January in Lerwick. There are 12 all together, across the islands from January up until mid March, it’s not just one night. For all it’s craziness it is incredibly well organised and planned to precision.
Fire festival history
Speaking to different Shetlanders during my visit it seems Up Helly Aa has many meanings to it’s residents. Some say it was to prevent the “younger ones” from getting into mischief and burning tar barrels down the streets of Lerwick. Others say it is a way of waving goodbye to the darkness of winter and embracing the longer days and also as a celebration of their Nordic heritage.
Changing over the years, “guizing” – wearing a disguise, was introduced. It was not until the early 1900’s that a Guizer Jarl became a part of the celebrations, would have his own squad and head the procession. Each year would give one man his turn as Guizer Jarl.
This year’s Jarl Squad is headed by Lyall Gair, a 37 year old self-employed joiner has been waiting patiently for his turn and has been involved in the event since 1990. As a committee member since 2004 he has used this time to design and save money each month for his suit.
Each of the 58 members of the Jarl Squad have to fund their own suits, which are absolute works of art and a pure reflection of the time, effort, love, money and craftmanship that goes in to each suit. This year it includes chain mail, sheep skin, leather, metal and wood work. An incredible amount of dedication with most spending at least three nights a week working on suits, songs or galley building.
This years squad was made of members of Lyall’s family and friends including his dad and brother. I would imagine it makes this once in a lifetime event even more special.
It’s a long day for the Jarl Squad, starting early in the morning and then the first procession at 9am. After this they will visit schools, hospitals and care homes for anyone who won’t get down in to the town. I found this to be such a wonderful thought knowing that people won’t be missing out.
One thing you do notice is that everyone gets involved. So from an outward facing perspective it may look like the men just get a day out drinking but it is SO much more than this. As I mentioned above there is a lot of planning involved and spouses and other family members have to be supportive and maybe put on the back burner for the best part of twelve months. They may also have skills which could be put to good use, and so become a part of the festival that no-one gets to see.
Many shops and businesses dress their windows to celebrate Up Helly Aa too.
Children in the community also get to learn the traditions too. They can be a part of the procession or maybe they will be taken down into town during the day to catch the first glimpse of the galley and the Jarl Squad. As they get older the boys have a chance to be in the junior procession.
The show must go on
One thing I did learn is that it doesn’t matter what the weather is like, Up Helly Aa will still happen. It had been raining pretty much all day but it hadn’t dampened anyones spirits.
I managed to get a spot by the play park wall quite early on and it was cold and wet but yet the crowds still gathered and there was an air of anticipation and excitement. As the flare went off into the night sky to signal the lighting of the torches I could feel my heart start to race slightly.
As the Jarl Squad led the other 900+ men around the streets of Lerwick all of a sudden I had forgotten about the rain. In the heat from the torches, just feet away, I was no longer feeling the cold. In the play park the replica Viking long boat is brought to her resting place. Once all the other squads are in the park and they have sang the Up Helly Aa song and Guizer Jarl addresses those of us who have braved the elements, the torches are thrown into the galley.
I have to admit I had mixed feelings at this point. A spectacular sight and not something you get to see everywhere and yet feelings of sadness because that is twelve months (and longer) of hard graft. As the flames grew higher it was totally mesmerising, with sparks catching the wind and the silhouettes made by the vikings. Something I will NEVER ever forget.
For the residents of Shetland and a small number of lucky visitors the celebrations continue and well into the following morning. Another great example of everyone pulling together – each hall has hosts and hostesses and they put in an awful lot of time dressing the halls, baking, making soup, sandwiches and of course the inevitable clean up!
You don’t just get to rock up at any of the halls you have to be invited and have a ticket (not generally on sale, you have to know a host). I was lucky enough to enjoy the full Up Helly Aa experience and go to the halls too.
It’s a rather surreal experience – the 47 different squads travel around the halls to perform. This could be a song, a sketch, a dance routine and each one will be different. As you can imagine there is alcohol involved so at the beginning of the night the performances are slightly sharper than those that go on at 5am. Yes you read that correctly. It seems Shetlanders are hardcore and will dance and drink the night away better than any Ibiza clubbers I have ever known!
With a mix of young and old in the halls everyone must dance, that included me, and I apologise to everyone who saw my strip the willow effort! Horrendous.
I left a piece of my heart in Shetland
All in all I loved every single second of my Up Helly Aa experience, it won’t be my last. There will be so much that I missed out on or couldn’t see that I will need to go back. It didn’t matter that it was winter or that the daylight hours were short, this experience was incredible. The people of Shetland were so kind and welcomed me with open arms (perhaps they will think twice if word gets out about my ceilidh dancing attempts). Their passion for their heritage and traditions is overwhelming and they want to share it. I most definitely left a piece of my heart in Shetland.