Burn your boats at Up Helly Aa

Held each January to celebrate Shetland’s rich Viking heritage, the fiery Up Helly Aa festival is a truly remarkable sight.

Originating in the 1880s, Up Helly Aa is a community fire festival which takes place in Lerwick, on the last Tuesday in January.

It is believed that the name, Up Helly Aa is derived from the old Norse word Uppi, indicating the end of something, helly, referring to a holy day or festival and aa, meaning all.

Although the night-time burning of the galley may be the most spectacular sight, the celebrations start early in the day and involve Shetlanders of all ages.

The first glimpse of the Guizer Jarl and Jarl Squad can be caught as they march through Lerwick visiting the British Legion, Market Cross, Town Hall, Bressay Ferry Terminal and Shetland Museum.

As darkness falls torches are lit and the junior Guizer Jarl leads the squad of youngsters to burn the ‘peerie’ galley before the senior Guizer Jarl steps up to lead his squad from the helm of their galley, flanked by over 900 torches, to the burning site at the King George V playing field. These torches will eventually be thrown into the galley to set it alight.

Celebrations go on long into the night, so much so that the following day is declared a public holiday in Lerwick to allow participants the chance to recover.

Although there is little time to rest as preparations for the following year’s festival begin in February in order to accommodate the long hours of work that go into putting together the galley to be burned once again.

For more information on the festival visit: www.uphellyaa.org

(This feature was originally published in 2015)