Snow, Wind and Fire

The last week has provided some entertaining travel challenges and photographic opportunities.

I've been spending time in Aviemore in the Cairngorms photographing The Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain Aviemore Sled Dog Rally, before heading further north, via a rather bumpy ferry crossing to Shetland to watch the always dramatic Up Helly Aa in Lerwick.

The annual Aviemore Rally is the biggest event in the British sled dog racing calendar, and while it might not be the Iditarod, it does bring together several hundred enthusiastic drivers and handlers and well over 1000 dogs.  The big question ahead of the event is always “Will it be a Snow Rally?” The Iditarod may be able to rely on having snow (although I gather they did need to move the start point a few years ago to guarantee having deep enough snow), but the lower slopes of Scottish mountains in January are always going to be a bit hit and miss in terms of snow cover.

This year the event was 'blessed' with temperatures mostly just above freezing and quite a lot of heavy rain and sleet, so the rally was run with the dogs pulling three-wheeled rigs and the sleds stayed strapped to the vans and cars that had brought them to the Cairngorms.  On both days of the main event, the weather followed the same pattern; rain/sleet/snow and wind in the morning followed by a bit of sunshine in the afternoon.  The morning runs, which were mostly the bigger dog teams or 6 or 8 dogs, were generally in pretty poor conditions with very little opportunity for action photography, but the afternoon runs with small teams were run with bright sunshine and snow on the ground in some places at least.  The sunshine put smiles on the faces of the drivers and the ever enthusiastic sled dogs looked even more enthusiastic than usual.

Once the dogs and drivers had headed back to their vans, and the sleds and rigs put away, most of the teams headed back south, while I headed across the Cairngorms to see what was happening with the Shetland ferries.  Throughout the run up to the Aviemore Rally the news had been full of reports of disruption to the travel throughout the UK, mostly caused by flooding in the south of the country and elsewhere by high winds blowing in from the east.  The Rally was on the west side of the Cairngorms so was at least a little sheltered, although the Cairngorm ski operations higher up the mountains were pretty much blown out for the weekend.

The Northlink ferry between Aberdeen and Shetland runs every night of the year, but just occasionally the weather intervenes and the ferries need to stay in port.  Last week the ferries didn’t run over the weekend, and were cancelled again on Tuesday, but remarkably the ferry did run on Monday night when I had booked to travel.  This was also the last ferry ahead of the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick, the high point of the winter on Shetland.  The ferries north are always busy with huge numbers of people coming to Shetland for Up Helly Aa – but the weekend cancellations ensured that the boat really was completely filled. The boat pitched and rolled its way north from Aberdeen, every now and again putting in an extra dramatic roll to keep everyone on their toes.  I was grateful to be lying down in a dark cabin for the duration of the crossing, and my only major shock was a loud crash from the galley or bar above my head at some point as we crossed the Noost (also called the Fair Isle  Channel, the bit of sea between Fair Isle and Shetland that is rough even when the sea looks calm!).   I think everyone was relieved when we got into Lerwick about an hour ahead of schedule.

Up Helly Aa is a fire festival which celebrates the Viking traditions that stretch back deep into Shetland’s history.  Up Helly Aa in its current form started in the late 19th Century, and the highlight of the event is the procession through the streets of Lerwick led by the Jarl Squad (in full Viking regalia) and several hundred supporters carrying a flaming torches.  The Squad drag a replica Viking long-boat, which at the end of the procession is torched in a ceremony resembling a Viking funeral.

Up Helly Aa Day on Shetland is very busy, usually starting with a procession to the harbour front for a photocall before the Jarl Squad tour the town visiting schools, hospital and the Shetland Museum.  Although the Shetland weather isn’t allowed to interfere with the celebrations, there are occasionally a few variations – this year the strong easterly winds meant that the harbour-front photocall was relocated to somewhere just a little bit more sheltered.

The weather did, remarkably, co-operate for the procession.  Despite some heavy showers of rain through the day, it did stay dry for the procession and the burning, and the strong winds ensured that the blaze was very spectacular.

Once the blaze has died down, the Up Helly Aa party gets into full swing, with the celebrations carrying on through to breakfast time the following morning. The next day is, perhaps unsurprisingly, regarded as an extra public holiday for many people on Shetland.

There are more images from both the Aviemore Rally and Up Helly Aa on Flickr, just follow the links.

The two events almost always coincide, the Rally on the  last week-end in January, and Up Helly Aa on the last Tuesday, I think I might just put these dates into my 2015 diary.

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