It is easier to indicate in which parts of Shetland there is not a Fire Festival to liven up a cold dark winter’s night than to list those places where the tradition is upheld. The most northerly festival takes place on the island of Unst. The most recent festival to be included in the calendar takes place in the South Mainland. The largest and longest established is the Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa, which always occurs on the last Tuesday in January. Each year, the first of these festivals takes place in Scalloway. Barely have the New Year celebrations ceased before the torches light up the night sky in the village. This is especially true when the second Friday in January falls on the eighth.
Scalloway is the ancient capital of Shetland and boasts the remains of a castle as one of its landmarks. Another of its claims to fame is that it was the base for the wartime ‘Shetland Bus’; the clandestine link with partisans in Nazi occupied Norway. It now has a deep-water harbour and a Fishery College. Scalloway has been much in the news of late because Shetland Islands Council has indicated that it intends to close the Secondary Department of Scalloway Junior High School. Scalloway is only six miles from Lerwick and plans to build a new six-year high school in Lerwick, are well under way. The intention is bus Scalloway children to Lerwick. On the face of it none of the above appears to have much to do with a fire festival. However, local politics go hand in glove with the events of the night.
The Scalloway Fire Festival
The Scalloway fire festival includes participants from several of its surrounding communities. People form the Islands of Burra Isle, Trondra and the neighbouring parish of Tingwall participate by opening their halls and sending squads to take part in the procession and to perform acts.
The way in which the event is organised is that each year a respected and enthusiastic person who has become recognised for work on previous fire festivals, is elected onto the Up-Helly-Aa Committee. The significance of this is that they have become a Guiser Jarl elect. Each year the longest serving member of the committee becomes Jarl. He (up until now it has always been a male) must select, from his friends and family, a squad who will become ‘Vikings’ for the day of the festival. This year Neil Ward was granted that honour.
In Lerwick all the participants are male. Females take part in all the other fire festivals forming squads and carrying torches. It is possible to find mixed squads or even all female squads. History will be made in a few years time when the first ever female, Guiser Jarl will form her squad in the South Mainland.
In addition to selecting who will share the privilege, the Guiser Jarl must decide on the design and colour of the ‘suit’. There are innumerable variations that can be incorporated into the costume. The planning and preparations take almost a year and much of the outfit is hand made by members of the squad.
This is not the only craftwork that is necessary for the festival. In Scalloway a replica long ship is built each year. Whist its Lerwick counterpart is made with the intention of being burnt in a local park, the Scalloway boat must be able to float because the burning takes place at sea. This makes it more authentic. After the long ship is launched the first act in burning her is done by local archers. They shoot flaming arrows onto the craft. Immediately after this all the torches that had illuminated the procession through the village streets are hurled on board. It is both spectacular and emotional to witness the burning boat sink beneath the waves.
As well as the Jarl Squad who represents Shetland’s Viking ancestry, there are numerous other squads. It is not unusual to witness some burly bearded men carrying flaming torches whilst wearing tutus. (The Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa has earned the nickname ‘Transvestite Tuesday’) All the squads have chosen a name for themselves and after the procession the squads take it in turn to visit the designated halls and large meeting rooms. When they arrive they perform an act. That means they sing, dance, or act a sketch. Frequently these ‘acts’ are based on amusing or more particularly, embarrassing events that have happened in the community during the preceding year. However, they can include occurrences of a national or political nature. No one’s blushes are spared.
Where to Buy Tickets
Members of the public and visitors can purchase tickets to the venues where the acts are performed. In each hall live music is played throughout the evening. As one can imagine no such event could take place without alcohol and most of the venues have a bar. The outcome is a night of feasting, dancing, drinking and entertainment.