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Up Helly Aa: The Epic After-Party


Modified: December 27, 2023

by Melloney Nemeth



Scotland is renowned for its rich cultural heritage, stunning landscapes, and vibrant festivals. Among the many celebrations that take place throughout the year, Up Helly Aa stands out as an extraordinary event that captivates locals and visitors alike. This traditional festival, deeply rooted in Shetland’s Norse heritage, is a feast for the senses and a testament to the enduring spirit of the Scottish people.


Up Helly Aa, which literally translates to “Up Holy Day,” takes place annually on the last Tuesday of January in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland Islands. The festival commemorates the influence of the Vikings on the island’s history and pays homage to their legacy.


What sets Up Helly Aa apart from other festivals is its spectacular torchlit procession and the symbolic burning of a replica Viking longship known as the galley. The event attracts thousands of participants, making it one of the largest fire festivals in Europe.


This article will explore the history and traditions of Up Helly Aa, as well as provide an insight into the captivating after-party that takes place once the fiery spectacle is over. So, get ready to immerse yourself in the magic of Up Helly Aa and discover why this festival holds a special place in the hearts of the Scottish people.


History of Up Helly Aa

The origins of Up Helly Aa can be traced back to the 19th century when the festival began as a way to celebrate Shetland’s Viking heritage. The Shetland Islands, located off the northeastern coast of Scotland, have a rich Norse history, and Up Helly Aa was initially a way to honor and preserve that heritage.


The festival gained popularity and evolved over time, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the event took on its current form. Up Helly Aa was reimagined to incorporate a torchlit procession and the burning of a replica Viking longship, known as the galley.


Since then, Up Helly Aa has become an essential part of Shetland’s cultural identity. The festival is deeply ingrained in the local community, with participants ranging from young children to seasoned veterans. It is a testament to the pride and connection that Shetlanders have to their Viking roots.


The festival’s significance extends beyond a mere celebration of Norse heritage. Up Helly Aa is also a way for the community to come together, strengthen bonds, and showcase the unique spirit of Shetland to the world. It is an opportunity for locals to express their creativity, craftsmanship, and love for their island home.


Throughout its history, Up Helly Aa has faced various challenges, including interruptions during times of war and the occasional controversies regarding the burning of the galley. However, the festival has persevered and grown in popularity, attracting visitors from around the world who are eager to witness this incredible display of culture and tradition.


Each year, a Jarl, or chief, is selected to lead the festival and is responsible for choosing a theme, designing the costumes, and organizing the squads involved in the event. The Jarl Squad, dressed in elaborate Viking costumes, plays a central role in the procession and the subsequent festivities.


As Up Helly Aa continues to thrive and evolve, it remains a testament to the resilience, creativity, and unique heritage of the people of Shetland. It is a celebration that honors the past while embracing the present, and one that showcases the deep-rooted connection between the Scottish people and their Viking ancestors.


The Torchlit Procession

The highlight of Up Helly Aa is undoubtedly the breathtaking torchlit procession that winds its way through the streets of Lerwick. Thousands of participants, known as guizers, don elaborate Viking costumes and carry lit torches, casting an ethereal glow on the night.


The procession is a sight to behold, with squads of guizers marching in perfect formation, each led by a magnificent Jarl Squad. The Jarl, adorned in an intricately designed Viking costume, stands at the forefront, symbolizing the festival’s rich Norse heritage.


The streets come alive with the sound of drums, pipes, and cheers as the procession makes its way through the town. The atmosphere is electric, with anticipation and excitement hanging in the air as locals and visitors alike gather to witness this grand spectacle.


The torches held high by the guizers create a mesmerizing effect, illuminating the night and creating a picturesque scene. The fiery glow of the torches reflects on the faces of the participants, showcasing their dedication and reverence to the festival’s traditions.


As the procession progresses, the guizers move in unison, showcasing their choreographed routines and displaying their elaborate costumes. The level of detail and craftsmanship put into each outfit is remarkable, with intricate embroidery and authentic Viking accessories adorning their attire.


The Torchlit Procession is a testament to the sense of community and pride shared by the people of Shetland. It is a visual feast that pays homage to the Norse heritage while captivating spectators with its grandeur.


At the end of the procession, the guizers gather around the galley, the replica Viking longship. The air is filled with anticipation as they prepare for the ceremonial burning of the galley, the culmination of the night’s festivities.


The Torchlit Procession truly embodies the spirit of Up Helly Aa, showcasing the creativity, dedication, and unity of the Shetland community. It is a spectacle that leaves a lasting impression on all those fortunate enough to witness it, creating memories that will be cherished for a lifetime.


The Galley Burning Ceremony

The Galley Burning Ceremony is the climax of Up Helly Aa, where the guizers come together to set fire to the replica Viking longship, known as the galley. This symbolic act represents the end of the Viking era and serves as a tribute to the past.


The galley is beautifully crafted, meticulously decorated, and stands tall as a majestic centerpiece. It represents a bygone era when the mighty Viking longships ruled the seas and the islands were under their influence.


Before the burning commences, the Jarl, accompanied by his squad, delivers a powerful, heartfelt speech to the gathered crowd. The speech often reflects the chosen theme of the festival and conveys the spirit of the community, emphasizing the importance of heritage and unity.


As the moment arrives, the guizers position themselves around the galley, torches still aglow in their hands. The excitement in the air is palpable as a hushed silence falls over the crowd, waiting for the ignition.


With a dramatic flair, the Jarl commands the lighting of the galley. Flames quickly engulf the ship, casting an orange glow in the dark sky, and creating a spectacle that is both awe-inspiring and poignant.


As the galley burns, the crackling of the fire mingles with the cheers and applause of the onlookers. The heat of the flames can be felt, and the sight of the burning ship against the backdrop of the night sky is a truly mesmerizing sight.


The Galley Burning Ceremony represents the symbolic end of the festival, but it also signifies the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is a potent reminder of the passage of time and the importance of preserving and honoring the traditions and history that shape a community.


Furthermore, the burning of the galley acts as a cathartic release for the participants, allowing them to shed the Viking personas they embodied during the festival and return to their everyday lives with a renewed sense of pride and camaraderie.


With the final embers of the galley fading into the night, the festival concludes, leaving behind powerful memories and a sense of connection to the past. The Galley Burning Ceremony is a poignant reminder of the enduring legacy of the Vikings and a testament to the Shetland community’s commitment to preserving their rich heritage.


The Squads and Jarl Squad

Central to the vibrant atmosphere of Up Helly Aa are the squads and, most notably, the Jarl Squad. The festival brings together numerous squads, consisting of locals who don elaborate Viking costumes and participate in the torchlit procession and subsequent festivities.


Each squad is made up of individuals who dedicate months of preparation and creativity to their costumes and performances. The level of detail in their attire is astonishing, with intricate embroidery, authentic Viking accessories, and even handcrafted props.


The squads represent a sense of community and camaraderie, with members often coming from various backgrounds, ages, and professions. Their dedication and passion for Up Helly Aa are evident in the spectacular displays they put on during the procession.


However, the highlight of the squads is the esteemed Jarl Squad. The Jarl, chosen to lead the festival, plays a significant role in Up Helly Aa. An individual respected and admired within the community, the Jarl is responsible for selecting a theme for the festival, designing the costumes, and organizing the squads.


The Jarl Squad, led by the Jarl, takes center stage during the torchlit procession. Dressed in a stunning, intricately detailed Viking costume, the Jarl represents the embodiment of the festival’s Norse heritage and serves as an inspiration for the other participants.


The Jarl Squad is often the most visually striking and commanding presence in the procession. With their coordinated movements, fierce expressions, and grandiose outfits, they captivate the attention of onlookers and add a touch of regality to the event.


Being a part of the Jarl Squad is a great honor, and members take their roles seriously. They embody the spirit and essence of the chosen theme, ensuring that their costumes and performances accurately reflect the historical era being portrayed.


From the Jarl Squad to the various squads that make up the procession, Up Helly Aa is a celebration of unity, showcasing the collective effort, creativity, and passion of the Shetland community. The squads bring life to the festival and contribute to the overall magical and immersive experience for everyone involved.


Whether it’s the meticulously crafted costumes, the synchronized movements, or the radiant energy they exude, the squads and Jarl Squad are at the heart of Up Helly Aa, representing the rich tradition and indomitable spirit that make the festival so exceptional.


The After-Party

After the spectacular Torchlit Procession and the Galley Burning Ceremony, the celebration of Up Helly Aa continues into the night with an epic after-party. This is a chance for the participants and spectators to come together and revel in the lively atmosphere that surrounds the festival.


The after-party takes place in various venues throughout Lerwick and is a culmination of music, dancing, and merriment. It is a time for people to let loose, celebrate, and continue the camaraderie that was forged during the festival.


Live music fills the air, with bands and performers taking the stage to entertain the crowds. From traditional Scottish folk music to contemporary tunes, the after-party caters to a diverse range of musical tastes, ensuring there is something to keep everyone dancing and singing along.


The atmosphere is electric, as locals and visitors mingle and share stories from the day’s events. Laughter and cheer are in abundance, creating an infectious energy that permeates the venues.


During the after-party, participants often shed their Viking costumes and return to more contemporary attire, allowing everyone to let their hair down and enjoy the festivities in a relaxed and jovial environment.


One of the highlights of the after-party is the opportunity to taste traditional Scottish food and drink. From hearty haggis and savory Scotch eggs to delectable shortbread and whiskey tastings, there is an array of culinary delights to satisfy every palate.


As the night progresses, the after-party continues well into the early hours of the morning. It is a time to unwind, celebrate, and forge new connections with fellow festival-goers.


Whether you choose to immerse yourself in the music, indulge in the delicious fare, or simply soak up the vibrant atmosphere, the Up Helly Aa after-party offers an unforgettable experience that enhances the overall celebration of the festival.


So, after witnessing the awe-inspiring torchlit procession and witnessing the symbolic burning of the galley, make sure to join in the after-party and revel in the joyous ambiance of Up Helly Aa.


Music and Entertainment

One of the key elements that elevates the Up Helly Aa celebration is its vibrant music and entertainment. From traditional Scottish tunes to modern melodies, the festival offers a diverse range of performances that captivate and engage the audience.


Live music takes center stage during the after-party, with bands and performers setting the tone and creating an electric atmosphere. Scottish folk music, with its enchanting melodies and lively rhythms, is a prominent feature, allowing festival-goers to immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage of the region.


Local musicians showcase their talent, playing traditional instruments such as bagpipes, fiddles, and accordions. The stirring sound of the bagpipes, in particular, evokes a sense of pride and nostalgia, transporting listeners back in time to the era of the Vikings.


It’s not just traditional music that pervades the air, though. Up Helly Aa embraces various genres, catering to a wide range of musical tastes. From contemporary bands to DJs spinning energetic beats, the festival ensures there is something for everyone.


The entertainment doesn’t stop at music. Up Helly Aa also offers a diverse lineup of performances that engage and awe the audience. From dance troupes showcasing traditional Scottish dance to theatrical performances that bring the stories of the Vikings to life, there is an abundance of talent on display.


The entertainment during Up Helly Aa is not limited to the after-party. Throughout the day, there are often additional events and entertainment options for both locals and tourists to enjoy. These can include street performers, art installations, and interactive exhibits that further enhance the festival experience.


Music and entertainment play a crucial role in creating a festive and jubilant atmosphere during Up Helly Aa. They bring people together, ignite a sense of community spirit, and add an extra layer of enchantment to the celebration of Shetland’s Norse heritage.


So, as you immerse yourself in the captivating sights and sounds of Up Helly Aa, prepare to be entertained and enchanted by the music and performances that make this festival an unforgettable experience.


Costume Contest

Up Helly Aa is not just a display of Viking heritage and grand processions; it’s also an opportunity for participants to showcase their creativity and craftsmanship through their elaborate costumes. A key highlight of the festival is the highly anticipated costume contest, where participants compete to be recognized for their exceptional outfits.


The costume contest is a platform for the participants to demonstrate their attention to detail, historical accuracy, and imagination in bringing their Viking personas to life. It is a celebration of the artistry and dedication that goes into each costume.


Participants pour months of effort into researching, designing, and creating their costumes. From intricately embroidered tunics and patterned cloaks to handcrafted helmets and shields, the level of craftsmanship is truly impressive.


The judges meticulously evaluate each costume based on various criteria, such as authenticity, creativity, and overall presentation. Attention is given to the accuracy of historical details, the quality of materials used, and the ability of the costume to transport the wearer and the audience to the Viking era.


It’s not just about replicating historical fashion; participants often incorporate personal touches and incorporate elements that reflect their own interpretation of Viking culture. This allows for a diverse range of costumes, ensuring that each participant brings a unique flair to the contest.


The costume contest adds an exciting element of competition to the festival, creating a buzz of anticipation among both participants and spectators. The winners of the contest are celebrated and admired for their exceptional craftsmanship and the ability to capture the essence of the Viking era.


However, the contest is not just about winning; it is a celebration of the collective effort and passion that goes into creating these incredible costumes. It serves as a reminder of the immense talent and dedication within the Shetland community and their commitment to honoring their Norse heritage.


The costume contest is a testament to the vibrant and imaginative spirit of Up Helly Aa. It showcases the power of creativity and craftsmanship to bring history to life, allowing participants to become living embodiments of the Vikings and to contribute to the overall enchantment and authenticity of the festival.


So, as you witness the spectacle of the costume contest during Up Helly Aa, prepare to be amazed by the incredible talent on display and the dedication to historical accuracy that brings the Viking era to life before your eyes.


Traditional Food and Drink

No festival is complete without indulging in an array of delicious food and drink, and Up Helly Aa is no exception. This celebration of Scottish heritage offers a fantastic opportunity to savor traditional cuisine and beverages that are deeply rooted in the region’s rich culinary history.


One iconic dish that takes center stage during Up Helly Aa is haggis. This hearty and flavorful delicacy is made from a mixture of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, combined with onions, oatmeal, and a blend of spices. The haggis is traditionally cooked inside a sheep’s stomach, resulting in a unique and distinct flavor. It is typically served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes), completing a truly Scottish feast.


In addition to haggis, other traditional Scottish dishes make an appearance during the festival. Scotch eggs, which feature a hard-boiled egg encased in sausage meat and breadcrumbs, are a popular choice among festival-goers. The savory meat and crispy exterior make them a satisfying snack to fuel the festivities.


To satisfy your sweet tooth, Up Helly Aa offers an array of delectable treats. Shortbread, a classic Scottish buttery biscuit made from butter, sugar, and flour, is a beloved indulgence. Its crumbly texture and buttery flavor make it a perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea or a glass of whisky.


Speaking of whisky, no celebration of Scottish culture would be complete without a toast or two. Up Helly Aa provides the opportunity to sample a variety of Scotch whiskies, renowned for their distinct flavors and smooth character. Whether enjoyed neat or in a traditional whisky cocktail, it’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in the spirit of the festival.


It’s not just the food and drink itself that adds to the experience, but also the convivial atmosphere surrounding it. Up Helly Aa allows people to come together, share stories, and bond over a shared appreciation for Scottish cuisine. The warmth and generosity of the locals amplify the enjoyment and make every bite and sip a memorable experience.


So, as you immerse yourself in the festivities of Up Helly Aa, be sure to savor the traditional food and drink on offer. Indulge in the flavors that have been passed down through generations, and let your taste buds experience the true essence of Scottish cuisine.



Up Helly Aa, a celebration deeply entrenched in Shetland’s Viking heritage, is a remarkable festival that captivates the hearts of both locals and visitors. From the torchlit procession to the symbolic burning of the galley, Up Helly Aa offers a truly immersive experience that showcases the rich cultural traditions and the indomitable spirit of the Scottish people.


The festival’s history, rooted in the 19th century, stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the Vikings and their influence on the Shetland Islands. Up Helly Aa pays homage to this history, allowing people to reconnect with their roots and celebrate the shared heritage of the community.


The Torchlit Procession, with its awe-inspiring display of costumes, torches, and synchronized movements, brings the streets of Lerwick to life and draws spectators into a world of enchantment. The Galley Burning Ceremony serves as a symbolic farewell to the Viking era and reinforces the importance of preserving history and tradition.


Central to the festival are the squads and the esteemed Jarl Squad, who dedicate their time and effort to embodying the Viking spirit. Their participation showcases not only the creativity and craftsmanship but also the unity and camaraderie that make Up Helly Aa a truly special event.


The after-party extends the celebration into the night, offering live music, dancing, and a taste of traditional Scottish cuisine. From the traditional music of bagpipes to contemporary beats, the festival provides a diverse range of entertainment that keeps spirits high and the atmosphere alive.


Finally, the opportunity to sample traditional Scottish food and drink, such as haggis, Scotch eggs, shortbread, and whisky, adds to the immersive experience of Up Helly Aa. It allows festival-goers to indulge in the flavors of the region while forging connections and creating lasting memories with both locals and fellow visitors.


Up Helly Aa is not just a festival; it is a journey through time, a celebration of culture, and a testament to the resilience and creativity of the Scottish people. It serves as a reminder to cherish and honor our historical roots while fostering a sense of community and pride that transcends generations.


So, whether you have the opportunity to witness the vibrant torchlit procession, immerse yourself in the captivating after-party, or sample the delectable flavors of traditional Scottish cuisine, the experience of Up Helly Aa will leave an indelible mark on your soul, creating memories that will last a lifetime.