Watching the Vikings - Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2015

Around this time of year, the population of Shetland go distinctly Viking.

To keep themselves amused through the dark post-Christmas months the Shetland tradition is to dress up as Vikings and drag a Viking-style longship through the streets of a town or village and set fire to it in a local park or, if possible, in a local bay.  This tradition, while it might appear to have been going on since the Vikings were first resident on Shetland 900 years ago, was actually started in its current form in the middle of the 19th Century when the entertainment of tar-barrelling (dragging a flaming barrel of tar through the streets) was outlawed.  The Victorian Shetlanders dug back into their collective heritage and transformed their tar-barrelling antics into something that more closely resembles a Viking funeral.  Like many things in this country, it's a Victorian invention that we now assume has just always been the way that things should happen.

The biggest Up Helly Aa is in Lerwick at the end of January,but there are similar, smaller, events at 10 other locations around the island during February and March.  In Lerwick the galley, which has been under construction for the last 8 or 9 months, is marched to the harbourside for photographs then left there while the Jarl Squad, the group responsible for this year’s galley, spend the day visiting schools and hospitals around the town.

Guizer Jarl visiting Shetland Museum
Once darkness falls the real festivities get underway.  A junior Up Helly Aa, where a small galley is burned, sets the tone for the evening and allows the school children of Lerwick to get into the Viking spirit that they'll aspire to in later years.

Junior Galley, Lerwick 2015
For the main event all the street lights in the town are turned off and the galley is marched to the burning site.  The march is led by the Guizer Jarl (the Up Helly Aa chief for the year) and his Jarl Squad, followed by almost 1000 other people in fancy dress formed up as supporting squads.  The squads are all men at the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, although not at the local events.  Every man in the procession will be carrying a flaming torch ready to be thrown into the galley.  A firework marks the start of the procession, and once the procession has marched the streets of Lerwick the squads gather around the galley to cheer the Jarl.  Once he has jumped clear of the galley the torches light up the boat and it’s allowed to burn.

Squads in procession, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
Cheering the Jarl, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
Starting the Burning, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
Burn Underway, Up Helly Aa Lerwick 2015
The squads, with the Jarl Squad as the guests of honour, then spend the next hours visiting the huge number of Halls or parties being held around the town.  This isn't a quick process, and it’s not uncommon to see people wandering home from the Halls well after daybreak on the morning after. In a concession to the festivities, the following day is taken, by most people, as a public holiday.

As one might expect from an event rooted in Viking traditions, Up Helly Aa shows very few concessions to the weather.  I've known one occasion when the morning photocall on the harbour front was moved to a less exposed position, but I don’t think the event has been cancelled at any time since it was restarted after a gap during the Second World War.  The last time the event was altered significantly was 50 years ago when, as a mark of respect for Winston Churchill, it was postponed by a week.

This year the weather was very co-operative.  Heavy showers early in the day cleared away, and by evening it was both dry and (by Shetland standards) windless.  I was in the crowd overlooking the burning site surrounded by lots of visitors seeing Up Helly Aa for the first time.  

Up Helly Aa in 2007 was my first taste of Shetland culture, I don't think I expected to spend quite as much of the next few years around Shetland as I have done. Maybe I should have warned the Up Helly Aa first-timers around me that the place get be rather addictive. 

Or maybe it's better to let them find out for themselves. 

There are more pictures from this years event on my Flickr site.

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