Up-Helly-Aa is the largest fire festival in Europe, and is celebrated in Scotland’s Shetland Islands every January. This part of Scotland is the most northerly part of the United Kingdom, 600 miles north of London. There are 100 islands here, 15 of them inhabited, and it’s in Lerwick that the fiery festivities take place.
Although Up-Helly-Aa is a relatively modern event, it derives from the traditions and mythology of the early Norse settlers. When Christianity came to these islands the ancient festival of Yule became Christmas. But Uphalliday (the end of the holidays) was when Shetlanders reverted to their pagan past and celebrated with feasting and bonfires.
It’s not until nightfall that the main celebrations start, but before dawn a 10-foot high, elaborately-decorated proclamation is placed at the Market Cross. The main attraction of this is for the locals, as it’s full of gossip and wicked humour about the year’s happenings in Shetland. At 10am the Guizer Jarl, or chief guizer, and his squad of Vikings drag the galley through the town to the harbour, where it will remain on display for the rest of the day.
By 7pm a thousand guizers are gathered in their squads, waiting to get their torches lit. At 7.30 a rocket is fired and, as the torches are lit, the procession forms a snaking path of light through the dark streets until it comes to the burning site. The band strikes up and the noisy raucous progress of music and singing takes half an hour to reach the burning field, where they circle the galley in a huge swirling Catherine Wheel of fire.
As the guizers sing The Galley Song, a bugle sounds and the torches are fired into the galley. As the craft burns the crowds sing The Norseman’s Home. Gradually the crowds disperse to parties which will continue until morning. Most of them are private but for visitors there are a couple of halls where tickets are on sale to the public and they can join in the feasting. During the night the guizers will visit every hall, refresh themselves with food and drink and perform a sketch. By 8.30am the parties are over, it’s a public holiday and Lerwick becomes a ghost town as everyone sleeps.