Creative Content Writer & former Tour Guide at HAGGiS Adventures. Scottish travel blogger and adventure lover. Kay travels Scotland on public transport, and has visited 41 Scottish Islands. She loves to live up to stereotypes by dying her hair ginger, and regularly consuming haggis and whisky. A Scottish history geek and all-around chatterbox, she can literally talk for Scotland.
Up Helly Aa belongs on your bucket list
In Scotland, winter is all about mulled beverages, festive feasts, luminous sunsets, and duvet days with box-set binges. If you’re from the country’s most northerly archipelago however, winter is an extra special season.
As the temperatures plummet and daylight makes it departure, there’s a progressive buzz in the air. The locals on Shetland are preparing for the hottest party in our country’s calendar, and you’re all invited.
Introducing ‘Up Helly Aa’, Shetland’s annual festival of fire and all-round barrel of bonkers. On the last Tuesday of January, the otherwise quaint town of Lerwick is ablaze with parades, processions and performances, led by squads of roaring, bearded locals. Visitors arrive unsure what to expect, and leave in the knowledge that they won’t experience anything quite like it again.
Up Helly Aa belongs on your travel bucket-list, and here are five reasons why.
1) The party at sea.
There’s nothing quite like a fourteen-hour voyage across the North Sea to prepare you for Up Helly Aa. Travelling by ferry has ‘adventure’ written all over it, and there’s every chance this epic crossing won’t be a smooth one.
Dinner is locally-sourced comfort food in the canteen-style restaurant, and you’ll find fellow festival revellers getting into the spirit of things (quite literally) at the sufficiently stocked bar. The cabins are surprisingly spacious, and the rocking motion is a treat come bedtime. Start the following day with a buffet-style Scottish breakfast before gracing the shores of Shetland.
Following the fiery festivities, the return journey is… interesting.
2) To meet the Vikings.
The Shetland Islands are closer to Scandinavia than to Scotland’s mainland, and this connection runs far deeper than geography alone. Between 800AD and 1468, Shetland belonged to the Kingdom of Denmark. It was only when the Danish King fell short of cash to fund the marriage of Princess Margaret to King James III of Scotland, that the islands were ‘mortgaged’ to Scotland. You might’ve gathered, we never gave them back!
Up Helly Aa celebrates this heritage, and gives visitors the chance to meet modern day Vikings in the flesh. Dozens of local men make up the Jarl Squad, who design their Viking costumes up to two years in advance. They are led by the Guizer Jarl, who has served a fifteen-year apprenticeship in the squad for this one-year-only privilege. There is also a Junior Jarl Squad, and super cute mini-Vikings who join the morning parade.
Would you ask a Viking for a selfie?
3) Get in amongst the flamin’ madness.
At 19.30 the Procession commences. Despite the relentless rain and gale-force winds, thousands of paraffin-dipped torches are lit and carried through Lerwick’s residential streets. The Jarl Squad are followed by over forty other squads kitted out in obscure and eccentric fancy dress. Sparks fly and camera flash, as the Viking Galley is wheeled through the procession towards a children’s playground.
The squads surround and circle the Galley like fireflies, tossing their torches into the wooden structure. The beautifully crafted boat is soon blazing, the dragon head looking perfectly at home amidst the rising flames. It took local volunteers four months to build, and just thirty minutes to burn. It’s mental, and we love it.
4) Dance until dawn.
As flames burn their last and the procession reaches its conclusion, the crowds disperse and head straight home to bed. ONLY JOKING! This is when the real parties start, and continue until breakfast-time the next day. Numerous public buildings around Lerwick transform into the notorious Up Helly Aa ‘halls’.
If you're lucky enough to bag a ticket, alcohol is ‘bring your own’, and there’s a dedicated cloakroom to ensure its safekeeping. All we will reveal about the subsequent shenanigans is that it involves crazy ceilidh dancing and hilarious performances from the forty-five fancy dressed squads who tour the halls until daylight breaks. If you don’t stay until the end, at least get out of bed to watch those who did on their wonky-walk home.
5) Be part of an island tradition.
Up Helly Aa is much more than arsonistic antics, eclectic costumes and consecutive days of drinking. It honours the roots of Shetland’s people, and is woven into the island’s culture. The festival traditions are instilled from a young age, and enjoyed for decades thereafter. So much so, the day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday!
The galley building, planning, spectating and pub crawling brings the community together during the long, dark winter months. School children are taken out of class to watch their friends in the parade, while the adults pack into the pubs at night for hours of toe-tapping tunes. Oh, and did we mention there’s lots of fire?
Up Helly Aa is an experience like no other. Come and see for yourself. Your bucket list depends on it!