Lighting Up the Galley at the “Up-Helly-Aa” Festival in the Shetlands

I am engulfed in Viking culture this year. And, as for one recreated Viking ship in the Shetlands this week, it is engulfed as well!  In flames that is.  It is all part of the spectacular event called Up-Helly-Aa, or as I like to call it, the “Oh-Hell Yeaaaah!” festival that is taking place in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. 

This region of the world geographically is where Scotland meets Scandinavia. Every January, on the last Tuesday of the month, the Up-Helly-Aa festival takes place, bringing bearded men, and maybe a few bearded ladies, together for a celebration of the Viking culture.  This years festivities will take place on January 30, 2018.  

The Fire Festival, as it is sometimes called, brings costumed “guizers” clad in Nordic wear hanging on to shields and torches as they storm the streets of Lerwick.  Dragging a Viking “longboat” down the streets to it’s final resting place where it is set ablaze, thousands of people gather to enjoy the annual festivities well into the hours of the night.  

What took months to build, is destroyed within minutes, as torch-bearing “Vikings” throw their lit torches into the 9-meter long galley to light it up and burn it to the ground. After the ship burning, the festivities move on to private parties at various Viking halls to drink the night away.  It is said, due to the historical lack of females in Lerwick for the event, the after parties are famous for cross-dressing Vikings dubbing the night ‘Transvestite Tuesday’. No, I’m not kidding, and sadly this is a mostly male event at least for the Jarl’s squad, but the ladies do play a major part in the organizing and hosting at the Viking Halls. 

Want to attend the event? Here is what you can expect:

At 7:30pm sharp, the signal is given, and whoosh! The torches are lit. A band plays as the procession begins.  A “Guizer Jarl” stands proudly at the helm of his dragon faced longship.  His “squad” of Viking clad men stand behind.  They make their way through the streets of Ledwick dragging the ship to its demise. The guizers and spectators circle the ship in a wheel of fire.  A rocket burst overhead with a roaring cheer from the crowd.  A bugle is sounded giving the signal that the flame throwing is about the begin.  The men start hurling their lit torches onto the longship setting it ablaze.  The crowd sings their best rendition of the song ‘The Norsemen’s Home’ which can give the burliest of Viking men a tear in their eye.  After the smoldering ship has been destroyed, that is when the event continues at the private halls.  The various “squads” put on skits for entertainment.  The next day in Lerwick is a public holiday.  I’m sure sleeping in is well advised.

How did the Up-Helly-Aa festival get it’s start you may ask, well here is a little history for you: The literal meaning of the Up-Helly-Aa festival is “lightening of the year”. This tradition started in the 1800’s as part of a Nordic revitalization that has lasted until present.  The event is said to have started as a Yule-time event near Christmas for soldiers and sailors carrying out general havoc on the streets of Lerwick that quickly got out of hand when adding in alcohol and fire.  Eventually, they moved the event later in January. In the late 1800’s, burning of tar barrels became a thing, and eventually changed to folks commemorate the Vikings by wearing costumes and carrying torches and shields by remembering these brave navigators who left their societies to go on raids looking for new lands to settle and possibly new trade relationships.



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