What Is Up Helly Aa & What Does It Mean To Shetlanders?

We have absolutely no trouble celebrating the culture & heritage that oozes from the Isles’ history. Whether that’s through traditional music with the hugely popular Folk Festival, our knitting past with Wool Week or, potentially the grandest of them all, Up Helly Aa. As the turn of the year comes and the rest of the country sets up for their dry January’s and the doom & gloom as they see out the last of Winter – Shetland gets ready to start awe-inspiring celebrations.

After what was apparently decades of young men dragging barrels of lighted tar through the streets of Lerwick, it would be a practice eventually banned in 1874.

The revellers would refine the tradition for the safety of the public and the introduction of torchlit processions came to fruition. The first torchlit procession on Up Helly Aa day itself would take place in 1881 and the first galley would be introduced and burned in 1889. As the festival continued to evolve, It would be the early 1900's before the Jarl's were introduced. We began seeing what a modern procession might look like. 

Over a century later, the evolution of the festival season would continue with country Up Helly Aa's, halls, exceptionally impressive suits, squad acts all being introduced somewhere along the way.

Up Helly Aa brings Shetland together. Up Helly Aa brings communities together. Up Helly Aa brings visitors from across the world together. It’s a world-renowned spectacle that's rightfully treasured. From the Fire Festival in Scalloway, through to the last Tuesday of January in Lerwick, right on through to Delting at the end of March and all the isles & country festivals in between, everyone has a part to play and everyone’s together.

Procession

With all that being said, what does it really mean to those involved? We spoke to a number of people to hear their take on the festivals we celebrate to see out the Winter.

We spoke with one guizer who’s been going out since the late 90’s, & having had their inaugural experience in the Jarl Squad just last year, they were well-versed in the tradition & meaning of Up Helly Aa.

It’s not just about the Vikings & Scandinavian heritage, it’s about Shetlanders “getting to come together” over the course of three months as we bring in the lighter nights across the Isles. It’s the “opportunity to celebrate with friends & family who you rarely see, it’s the dancing, the laughs.” It's the camaraderie even though you haven't seen each other since the year previous. A particular & obvious highlight for the soon-to-be veteran of the Lerwick festival was the year in the Jarl Squad, after such "work & graft" for it all to come together on a spectacular and beautifully, calm Up Helly Aa night was phenonemal, and "a memory that will last".

Away from the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, the Scalloway Fire Festival is the first fire festival of the year, taking place on the second Friday of January. A unique night that has twelve squads, none of which are mixed men and women and a festival that has its own traditions separate even from the upcoming Up Helly Aa’s.

Louise Davies, who has been participating for around 30 years, told us that the Scalloway Fire Festival is "great because it brings aa'body together” and you see many people you’d not usually get to see. She’s made “countless happy memories” over the years and it’s one of the real highlights of the year. Away from the people, her favourite aspect is, of course, the amazing “tongue-in-cheek sketches” and the fun that brings.

Longboat at Sea

In speaking to both hall goers & the guizers from across Shetland – including Bressay & the Southend the views are echoed. It's the family. The friends. The community. It's not about the one night, it's the lead-up, the hop and being ready to go again the next year!  

Up Helly Aa is truly something that makes Shetland special, it’s not simply about one in the town capital of Lerwick, it’s not a competition between different parishes, villages or areas. It’s an almighty, unique event that includes everyone and brings everyone together.

Enjoy the next couple of months & stay safe! More information on Up Helly Aa can be found here and if you have a story you want to tell about Up Helly Aa or Shetland and the culture and tradition it is enriched in, tell us about it!