With just over 100 years of custom and tradition, Up Helly Aa is the Shetland Islands nod to their Viking heritage. It is a superb spectacle and a triumphant demonstration of islanders’ skills and spirit. The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival, the ‘Guizer Jarl’, will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas he’ll represent.
Lerwick’s Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of his life for 15 years or more, before he dons his raven-winged helmet, grabs axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon. Along with the rest of the committed, volunteer crew, he’ll have spent thousands of hours planning and preparing each and every detail of Up Helly Aa and its associated events, until his big day dawns.
On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, almost 1,000 heavily-disguised men, in groups, known as ‘squads’, form ranks in the darkened streets of Shetland’s capital. Only the lead, or Jarl Squad, wear Viking dress. The rest are in costumes ranging from the almost sublime to the totally ridiculous. Each guizer shoulders a stout fencing post, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking. The torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly at the helm of his doomed replica longship, or ‘galley’.
It takes half an hour for the Jarl’s squad of Vikings to drag him to the burning site, through a crowd of 5,000 spectators or more. From there the Jarl set light to the Viking ship that the local men have spent the winter months building. Then they dance, sing and drink in the New Year.