Up Helly Aa has been on my travel wish-list since I learned of its existence back in 2010 when I became a tour guide with Haggis Adventures.
Imagine my delight when they invited me to board their buses once again – this time as a travel blogger – to experience Up Helly Aa.
What a way to kick-off the year!
Up Helly Aa: My Story
Thick paraffin fumes in the air were like a chopped onion to the eyes, and a shot of Sambuca to the throat. The wind couldn’t decide on a direction, and the relentless downpour of rain filled my boots with a penetrating pool of wet.
There was nothing surprising about the weather; after all, it was January on a remote northern isle shared by the North Sea and the Atlantic. It was no standard winter’s eve though, I tell ye.
A squad of bearded rebels marched through a residential area wielding fire-lit torches, bound for a children’s play park. The night sky was ablaze, and animalistic roars echoed through the streets.
A tsunami of heat warmed the crowds, while sparks swirled through the air and landed on the spectators. The smile couldn’t be “blown” off my face, even after I slipped and squelched bum-first into the mud.
Anywhere else, the event would have been “cancelled due to bad weather”, but not at the unstoppable Up Helly Aa.
Since gracing the shores of Lerwick three days earlier, I quickly realised that this would be unlike any other shindig. Of course I knew it would be quite the exhilarating affair, but nothing truly prepares you.
Up Helly Aa will captivate, wildly entertain, and potentially ruin you – dependent on how much you choose to indulge.
It is yours to embrace.
“I just can’t really explain it, so I won’t try to”, declared our Haggis Guide and Up Helly Aa super-fan Dougie, on the first day of the tour.
While there were key events to define our days, Dougie left much of the madness to our own anticipation and imagination, something which I am eternally thankful for.
With ten years of Up Helly Aa experience under his sporran, Dougie is immensely passionate about the festival and managed to keep us in suspense, yet brace us for the inevitable insanity.
All that was guaranteed was Vikings, inclement weather, and partying until the wee hours. The rest was left for us to discover and embrace.
It was like unravelling a great big burning ball of bonkers.
What the flames is it all about?
Up Helly Aa is a Viking fire festival which pays tribute to Shetland’s Scandinavian history and heritage. The Norse invaded in around 800AD and ruled the islands until 1468. This was the year the Danish fell short of the cash required to marry their Princess Margaret to James III of Scotland. They agreed to ‘mortgage’ Shetland to Scotland, but the Scots liked the islands so much, they never gave them back. Cheeky!
Celebrated annually on the last Tuesday of January, Up Helly Aa has been going strong since the 1880s, and continues to attract curious souls and media attention from far and wide.
Up Helly Aa has a well-earned reputation as wild child, however it is much more to the islanders than simply a knees-up; it is ingrained in their culture. Participation is (somewhat controversially) male-centred, however the festival itself is enjoyed by all.
It uplifts the community and brings people together during the long, dark winter months. A super-significant event in Shetland’s social calendar.
Meet the Vikings.
The Guizer Jarl is the nominated head Viking and leader of the Jarl Squad. To earn this privilege for just one day, the Guizer has completed a fifteen year ‘apprenticeship’ in the squad.
The Jarl Squad, several dozen of them, thoughtfully design their own costumes and shields up to two years ahead of the event.
Can you tell they take this all very seriously?
In addition to the Jarl Squad, there are forty-five other squads who contribute to the evening’s events, however they are instead kitted out in an eclectic array of non-Viking fancy dress. More on that later!
There is also a Junior Jarl Squad who have their very own Up Helly Aa, including a torchlight procession and Galley burning. The traditions are instilled from a young age, so they that they can step into the Viking boots of their elders, and become the Jarl Squad of the future.
Underpinning the whole shebang is the Up Helly Aa Committee, who are dedicated to the meticulous planning and preparation of the event. Their efforts can only be appreciated by those who have witnessed it all unfold.
Moments to characterise the craziness.
Epic sea voyage.
The North Link ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick is the average-Joe’s answer to a sea expedition. All 14 hours of it.
My Haggis Adventures tour included a comfortable shared cabin on the overnight ferry, where I was rocked to sleep by the waves.
The ferry is the prelude to the event, a place to savour the excitement and hope for an impromptu performance from the musicians onboard.
Travelling back is another story…
Let’s take hungover revellers in their masses out to sea in high winds for the night. Great idea! I said hello to my first experience of sea-sickness, induced by a Viking-sized hangover.
You could fly instead, but where’s the fun in that?
Viking karaoke at 9am.
It was the big day, and I struggled to find a gap between onlookers’ heads and a sea of smartphones to get a clear view. They looked like unshaven Rugby players dressed as Norse savages. They were singing, and it wasn’t an ancient Scandi-anthem or such like.
It was Elvis.
My friends at home were starting work, and I was in the pub watching ‘The British Legion’s Got Talent’ live, featuring the Jarl Squad – Burning Love.
Don’t mess with the mini Vikings.
Ever younger than the Junior Jarl are the utterly adorable select few of mini-Vikings who get the day off school to partake in the morning parade and sing-along.
These pocket-sized Norsemen let out their best lion-cub roars, and my favourite little dude with tight ginger curls couldn’t help but have a wee boogie during their Elvis sing song.
Imagine being that age, and riding in the Galley through Lerwick, waving (a toy axe) at your pals who are there to spectate. How cool!
4 months to build, 30 minutes to burn.
Our hero of a guide Dougie arranged for the group to have a sneaky peak at the Galley the day before big celebration. Backstage access for us!
Inside the Galley shed, several volunteers were putting the finishing touches to the beautifully crafted boat, which took twenty men four months to build; two nights in a week in their own time.
It was hard to believe that we’d be watching it go up in flames the next day – taking just thirty minutes to be obliterated by fire!
When the time came, my sympathies for the gorgeous Galley evaporated as I became mesmerised by the sight of torches thrown into the air, flames rising and casting a silhouette over the dragon’s head.
Basically, I was egging on over nine hundred arsonists in a kid’s play park. Cool.
A cloakroom for your bevy.
Torchlight procession, muddy bum, and arson playground party over, it was now time for the real shenanigans to start. Welcome to the infamous ‘halls’, a series of venues dotting Lerwick, which host parties from 9pm to 9am.
My eyes lit up at the ‘BYOB’ detail on my ticket for the Mareel venue. On arrival I handed over my crate of cider to be stored in an alcohol version of a cloakroom, and was given a numbered ticket in exchange.
Every thirty minutes I queued for no more than a minute to ask, “can I have one can from number 120 please?”.
The entertainment for the duration includes live music and ceilidh dancing, interspersed with antics from the forty-five squads who hop, skip and drink between the halls in random / rude / ridiculous costumes, performing comedic routines choreographed by the squad themselves.
I saw giant fish in yellow wellies, Irish dancers in nightmarish masks, and Donald Trump.
The morning after.
Even better than seeing the squads during the procession or in the halls, was seeing what was left of them the morning after.
There wasn’t a car on the roads, and the town was eerily quiet. Tumbleweed would have been a fitting feature on the deserted streets, unrecognisable from the crowded day before.
We were on the bus bright and early for the last of our island sightseeing before boarding the ferry home.
The first sight we saw was two drunken pandas; their face paint clinging on for dear life. They were stumbling home with lazy eyes and cheeky smiles, and waved warmly towards the bus as we greeted them with a toot.
Not something you see every day.
Farewell to the fire.
There’s no shying away from the chaos, comedy and frenzy of fire that is Up Helly Aa. Or the passion, hard-work and creativity which has been channelled into it.
The list above is by no means exclusive or definitive. I simply couldn’t put it all into words. I also didn’t want to. The element of the unknown only adds to its allure.
The energy and talent of the musicians, the atmosphere in the packed pubs, and the genuine warmth of the locals, is something which I would urge you to sample for yourself.
By the end of my escapades, the prospect of normality, strict Health & Safety regulations, and drinking from an actual bar within standard opening hours was alien to me. I would have to readjust to reality, and fast.
Reality or not, I refuse to leave behind my thoughts of flickering flames, furious fiddles, and Viking roars. I don’t think I could if I tried.
Up Helly Aa has left an inescapable imprint on me. What a lucky lass.
My Up Helly Aa experience was courtesy of Haggis Adventures in exchange for social media coverage, and this very blog post.
All of my opinions – and attempts to put this crazy experience into words – are my own.
MASSIVE thanks to my guide Dougie and driver Joe for making the trip so memorable and hilarious
- The Up Helly Aa tour with Haggis Adventures is aimed at backpackers and 18-35s (though not exclusively!) with dorm style accommodation on the ferry and on land.
- Alternatively, you can check out the Highland Explorer Up Helly Aa tour which includes more comfortable lodgings (a twin cabin on the ferry and a guest house in Lerwick) and a full Scottish breakfast in the morning.
Book early to avoid missing out!