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Up Helly Aa In Shetland – Possibly My Best Adventure Yet!


by Kiri Brehm



Welcome to the thrilling world of adventure travel! If you’re a thrill-seeker like me, always seeking new and exhilarating experiences, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, I’m going to take you on my most memorable adventure yet – Up Helly Aa in Shetland.


Up Helly Aa is a unique and spectacular fire festival that takes place in the Shetland Islands, off the coast of Scotland. It is a celebration of Shetland’s Viking heritage, and it attracts visitors from all over the world who come to witness the incredible display of fire, costume, and music.


As an adventure enthusiast, I was drawn to the raw energy and excitement of Up Helly Aa. The thought of being immersed in a centuries-old tradition and experiencing the thrill of the torchlit procession and the burning of a Viking longship was enough to ignite my sense of curiosity and wanderlust.


But embarking on this adventure wasn’t just about attending the festival itself. It was also about exploring the charming Shetland Islands, with their rugged landscapes, rich wildlife, and fascinating history. So, armed with my sense of adventure and a desire to immerse myself in the local culture, I set off on this once-in-a-lifetime journey.


Join me as I take you through the planning process, the excitement of arriving in Shetland, and the incredible experiences I had while exploring the islands. Get ready to witness the magic of Up Helly Aa and discover why it truly was my best adventure yet!


Background of Up Helly Aa

Before diving into my adventure in Shetland, it’s important to understand the rich history and cultural significance of Up Helly Aa. The festival has its roots in the Viking heritage of the Shetland Islands, where Norse traditions have been kept alive for centuries.


The origins of Up Helly Aa can be traced back to the 19th century, when the islands’ residents began to organize torchlit processions to mark the end of the Yule season. These early celebrations were simpler and smaller in scale compared to the grand spectacle we see today.


It was in the 1880s that Up Helly Aa as we know it began to take shape. Inspired by the desire to celebrate their Viking heritage, a group of Shetland residents formed the Guizer Jarl Squad, donning Viking costumes and marching through the streets with flaming torches. This laid the foundation for the modern-day festival.


Each year, a Guizer Jarl is chosen to lead the festivities. This individual, accompanied by a squad of Vikings, spends months preparing for the event by designing and creating their costumes, which are all meticulously crafted to reflect the Viking era. The Guizer Jarl is the focal point of the torchlit procession and plays a central role in the symbolic burning of the galley.


The festival itself takes place on the last Tuesday in January, and the celebrations begin early in the morning with the Jarl Squad parading through the streets, visiting local schools and community buildings. The highlight of the day is the torchlit procession, where thousands of torchbearers march through the streets, creating a mesmerizing spectacle of light and music.


After the procession, the torches are used to set ablaze a magnificent Viking longship, known as the galley. This symbolic act represents the end of winter and the rebirth of the sun, paying homage to the Viking tradition of sending off their fallen warriors in a fiery send-off.


Today, Up Helly Aa has become one of the biggest fire festivals in Europe, attracting spectators from all around the globe. It is a time for the Shetland community to come together, celebrate their heritage, and showcase their unique culture to the world.


Now that you have a better understanding of the history behind Up Helly Aa, let’s dive into the excitement and preparation that went into planning my adventure to the Shetland Islands.


Planning for the Adventure

Planning for my Up Helly Aa adventure was an exhilarating experience in itself. From researching the best time to visit to arranging accommodations and transportation, every step was filled with anticipation and excitement.


The first thing I considered was the timing of my trip. Up Helly Aa takes place on the last Tuesday in January, so I made sure to plan my visit accordingly. This allowed me to fully immerse myself in the festival and witness all the vibrant festivities.


Next, I began researching accommodations in the Shetland Islands. Being a popular event, it’s important to book accommodations well in advance to secure the best options. I wanted to be in the heart of the festival, so I opted to stay in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland and the epicenter of Up Helly Aa.


Transportation was another key aspect I focused on. Getting to the Shetland Islands requires some planning, as they are located off the northeast coast of Scotland. I decided to take a combination of flights and ferries to reach my destination, allowing me to enjoy the scenic journey as well.


With the logistics in place, it was time to dive into the details of the festival. I researched the schedule of events, making note of important times and locations. This allowed me to plan my days accordingly and ensure I didn’t miss any of the exciting activities leading up to the torchlit procession.


Another important consideration was my attire. Up Helly Aa is steeped in Viking tradition, so I wanted to embrace the spirit of the festival by dressing the part. I looked for clothing inspired by Nordic heritage, opting for warm layers and a hat with Viking motifs. This not only added to the overall experience but also kept me comfortable in the chilly Scottish weather.


Additionally, I made sure to pack a good camera and extra batteries. Up Helly Aa offers countless photo opportunities, from the colorful costumes to the flaming torches and the burning of the galley. I didn’t want to miss a single moment, and having the right equipment ensured I could capture the magic.


As I finalized my plans and prepared for my journey to Shetland, the excitement grew inside me. Little did I know that the experience that lay ahead would surpass all my expectations and become an adventure of a lifetime. Next, join me as I take you through my arrival in the Shetland Islands and the start of my unforgettable journey.


Arriving in Shetland

Stepping off the plane in Shetland, I could immediately feel the unique energy in the air. The rugged landscapes and the crisp, salty breeze welcomed me to this remote and enchanting archipelago. Excitement filled my veins as I knew that my Up Helly Aa adventure was about to begin.


After collecting my luggage, I made my way to Lerwick, the capital and largest town in Shetland. The drive from the airport provided a taste of the stunning scenery that awaited me during my time on the islands. Rolling hills, dramatic cliffs, and picturesque coastal villages dotted the landscape, creating a feast for the eyes.


Arriving in Lerwick, I checked into my cozy accommodation, which was conveniently located within walking distance of all the Up Helly Aa festivities. The town was buzzing with energy, as locals and visitors alike prepared for the grand celebration.


I took some time to explore Lerwick, getting acquainted with its charming streets and intriguing history. The town is a perfect blend of old-world charm and modern amenities, with colorful buildings lining the waterfront and quaint shops and cafes tucked away in narrow lanes.


As the sun set, I could sense the anticipation building in the air. The streets were adorned with flags and banners, and the sound of music and laughter filled the atmosphere. It was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and camaraderie of the upcoming festival.


During my stay in Lerwick, I also took the opportunity to visit some of the local attractions. The Shetland Museum and Archives provided insight into the islands’ rich history, while the awe-inspiring cliffs of Eshaness offered breathtaking views of the North Atlantic Ocean.


The day before the festival, I witnessed the preparation and final touches being made to the galley. The intricately designed longship was an impressive sight, adorned with colored lanterns and intricate carvings. It stood as a focal point in the town, ready to be set alight and bring an end to winter.


As the sun set and darkness enveloped the town, I felt a mix of anticipation and excitement for the next day’s events. The torchlit procession and the burning of the galley were just hours away, and I could hardly contain my excitement for what awaited me.


Little did I know that the festival itself would exceed all expectations and leave an indelible mark on my soul. Join me in the next section as I delve into the electrifying atmosphere of Up Helly Aa and the unforgettable experiences I had during the celebration.


Exploring the Shetland Islands

While Up Helly Aa was the main reason for my visit to the Shetland Islands, I knew that there was so much more to explore and discover beyond the festival. The rugged beauty and rich history of the archipelago beckoned me to venture beyond the festivities and uncover the hidden gems of Shetland.


I embarked on a journey of exploration, navigating the winding roads and breathtaking landscapes that spread across the islands. From the dramatic cliffs of Eshaness to the pristine beaches of St. Ninian’s Isle, every corner of Shetland offered a new and awe-inspiring sight.


The islands are a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, and I had the opportunity to witness the flourishing bird colonies that call Shetland home. Puffins, guillemots, and razorbills mesmerized me with their comical antics and vibrant plumage. It was a truly magical experience to see these remarkable creatures in their natural habitat.


As I delved deeper into Shetland’s history, I discovered ancient archaeological sites that spoke of a rich and mysterious past. Jarlshof, a remarkable prehistoric and Norse settlement, provided a unique glimpse into the lives of Shetlanders from thousands of years ago. The ruins of brochs, Iron Age structures, further added to the sense of wonder and fascination.


Exploring the small coastal villages was a delight in itself. Places like Scalloway and Sandwick exuded charm and offered a glimpse into local life. Walking along the picturesque harbors, I couldn’t help but imagine the stories and adventures that had unfolded within these historic communities.


But it wasn’t just the natural and historical wonders that captivated me; it was the warmth and friendliness of the Shetland people. Everywhere I went, I was met with smiles, friendly conversations, and a genuine sense of pride in their island home. The locals were always willing to share stories, recommend hidden gems, and make me feel like a welcomed guest.


Cuisine is an integral part of any travel experience, and Shetland did not disappoint. From sampling fresh seafood caught from the surrounding waters to indulging in traditional Shetland delicacies, such as bannocks and butteries, I was treated to a delectable culinary journey.


As my time on the Shetland Islands came to an end, I reflected on the countless memories I had created. Up Helly Aa had been the initial draw, but the exploration and immersion in the unique beauty and culture of the islands had truly made this adventure one for the books.


Join me in the next section as I recount the anticipation and excitement of the night before Up Helly Aa and delve into the heart of the festival itself.


The Night Before Up Helly Aa

The night before Up Helly Aa was a thrilling mix of anticipation, excitement, and a touch of nervous energy. As I wandered through the streets of Lerwick, the town was abuzz with the final preparations for the grand festival that lay ahead.


The excitement was palpable as the Guizer Jarl and his squad made their final adjustments to their Viking costumes, ensuring every detail was perfect. The intricately crafted shields, helmets, and weapons reflected the dedication and love that had gone into their creation. It was clear that this event held immense pride and significance for the local community.


The atmosphere in Lerwick was electric, with a sense of camaraderie permeating the air. Locals and visitors mingled, sharing stories and laughter while savoring delicious food and drink from the street stalls that lined the streets. There was a true sense of unity, with everyone coming together to celebrate this treasured tradition.


As the evening progressed, a palpable sense of excitement built up. The sound of music filled the streets, with fiddles, accordions, and drums creating an infectious rhythm. Traditional Shetland tunes reverberated through the air, adding to the festive atmosphere.


I took the opportunity to join in the festivities at one of the local pubs, immersing myself in the vibrant atmosphere. The lively conversations and laughter of locals and fellow adventurers filled the air, creating a sense of community and warmth.


As the night grew darker, the town began to transform. The glow of flaming torches lined the streets, illuminating the faces of eager onlookers. The anticipation was palpable, and I couldn’t help but be swept up in the energy and excitement that filled the air.


Walking through the streets, I observed the last-minute preparations unfold. The longship, the focal point of the festival, stood tall and majestic, its wooden structure adorned with intricate carvings and lanterns. It was a sight to behold, a symbol of the enduring Viking spirit and the culmination of months of hard work.


Around me, the Guizer Jarl and his Viking warriors rallied their squad, preparing to lead the torchlit procession through the streets. The dedication and pride in their eyes were evident, and I marveled at their commitment to keeping this age-old tradition alive.


As the clock ticked closer to midnight, I found myself in awe of the passion and dedication that I had witnessed throughout the day. The night before Up Helly Aa had set the stage for an incredible celebration, and I eagerly awaited the moment when the torches would be lit, and the procession would commence.


Little did I know that the magic of Up Helly Aa was about to unfold before my eyes. Join me in the next section as I delve into the mesmerizing torchlit procession and the unforgettable sights and sounds of the festival itself.


Attending the Up Helly Aa Festival

The day had finally arrived – Up Helly Aa, the grand fire festival that the Shetland Islands are renowned for. The anticipation in the air was palpable as thousands of people gathered in Lerwick to witness this incredible event unfold.


As darkness fell, the streets of Lerwick came alive with the glow of torches. The torchbearers, each holding a flaming torch high above their heads, lined up in formation, ready to embark on the torchlit procession. The sight was mesmerizing, the flickering flames casting an otherworldly glow over the participants and the surrounding architecture.


The beat of drums filled the air, accompanied by the haunting sound of traditional Shetland music. With a surge of energy, the procession began, marching through the streets in perfect harmony. The Guizer Jarl, resplendent in his Viking regalia, led the way, followed by his squad of warriors, all carrying their torches with pride.


As the procession wound its way through Lerwick, the crowd couldn’t help but be swept up in the spectacle. It was a captivating display of culture, tradition, and sheer exuberance. The vibrant costumes, the rhythmic music, and the ethereal glow of the torches created an atmosphere that was impossible not to be moved by.


As the flames danced and flickered, the sound of cheers and applause filled the streets. The onlookers became part of the performance, at times joining in the singing and dancing, as the procession made its way through the town.


The climax of the festival came when the procession arrived at the burning site. The Guizer Jarl and his warriors encircled the galley, their torches held aloft, illuminating the night sky. The tension built, and the air crackled with anticipation.


With a resounding cheer, the torchbearers simultaneously threw their torches onto the galley. Flames erupted, engulfing the longship, creating a mesmerizing inferno. The fire roared as sparks danced into the sky, illuminating the faces of those who had come to witness this incredible spectacle.


As I stood there, gazing at the burning galley, with its flickering flames and the silhouettes of the crowd against the night sky, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude. Gratitude for being part of such a unique and awe-inspiring event, and awe for the dedication and passion of the Shetland people who make Up Helly Aa come to life year after year.


As the last embers of the burning galley faded into the night, I watched the crowd disperse, with smiles on their faces and memories etched in their hearts. The Up Helly Aa Festival had left an indelible mark on all who had the privilege of attending. It was a celebration of community, heritage, and the enduring spirit of the Shetland Islands.


In the concluding section, I will share my final thoughts and reflections on my incredible adventure to Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands.


Witnessing the Torchlight Procession

The torchlight procession was the heart and soul of the Up Helly Aa festival, and I had the privilege of witnessing this awe-inspiring spectacle firsthand. As darkness blanketed the town of Lerwick, the streets came alive with the sound of drumbeats, music, and the flickering glow of countless torches.


Standing among the crowd, my anticipation grew as I caught the first glimpse of the Guizer Jarl and his squad. Adorned in meticulously crafted Viking costumes and holding their torches high, they led the procession with an air of solemnity and pride. Each member of the squad was a testament to the months of hard work and dedication it took to prepare for this moment.


As the procession began its slow and deliberate march through the streets, I was captivated by the rhythm and energy that permeated the air. The torchbearers moved in unison, creating a mesmerizing dance of light and shadows. The flames flickered, casting an ethereal glow on the faces of the participants and the ancient stone buildings.


Traditional Shetland music echoed through the streets, adding to the mystique and grandeur of the procession. The haunting melodies and rhythmic beats combined with the crackling of the torches, creating an atmosphere that was at once primal and enchanting.


As the procession weaved its way through the town, the crowd lining the streets couldn’t help but be swept up in the spectacle. Cheers and applause echoed through the night as the torchbearers passed by, their fiery torches illuminating the darkness. It was a moment of communal celebration, as locals and visitors alike marveled at the dedication and passion on display.


I found myself in awe of the attention to detail in the costumes and the commitment of the Guizer Jarl and his squad. Every aspect of their attire, from the intricate embroidery to the ornate helmets and shields, reflected the rich Viking heritage of the Shetland Islands. It was an extraordinary display of craftsmanship and reverence for tradition.


As the procession neared its end, the torches burned brightly, casting a warm glow on the assembled crowd. It was a sight I will never forget – the flickering flames, the swirling music, and the united spirit of those who had come to witness this remarkable event.


The torchlight procession exemplified the essence of Up Helly Aa – a celebration of heritage, tradition, and the indomitable spirit of the Shetland people. It was a testament to their dedication to keeping their Viking roots alive and sharing their unique culture with the world.


As the sound of drums faded and the torches dimmed, I carried with me the memories of that night – memories of a fiery and resplendent display that showcased the power of community and the enduring spirit of the Shetland Islands.


In the final section, I will reflect on my overall experience and share my thoughts on why Up Helly Aa was truly my best adventure yet.


The Burning of the Galley

The culmination of the Up Helly Aa festival was the burning of the galley – a symbolic act that marked the end of winter and the rebirth of the sun. It was a moment I had eagerly awaited, and I stood among the crowd as the anticipation built to a crescendo.


As the torchlight procession reached its destination, the atmosphere was electric. The crowd gathered around the towering galley, its wooden structure adorned with lanterns and carvings that told stories of the ancient Viking era. The Guizer Jarl and his squad encircled the galley, their torches held high, ready to ignite the night sky.


With a resounding cheer, the torchbearers simultaneously threw their torches onto the galley. The flames took hold, spreading rapidly, engulfing the longship in a blazing inferno. The crackling of the fire mixed with the cheers of the crowd, creating a symphony of sound that reverberated through the night.


The sight was truly awe-inspiring. The fierce flames flickered and danced, illuminating the faces of those gathered. The heat of the fire warmed my skin, and I could feel the energy radiating from the burning galley, as if it was igniting a fire within my own being.


The burning galley was not just a spectacle; it held deeper meaning. It symbolized the triumph of light over darkness, the promise of renewal and new beginnings. As I watched the longship transform into a pillar of fire, I couldn’t help but reflect on the cyclical nature of life and the enduring spirit of the Shetland people.


The burning of the galley was not simply the end of the festival; it was a moment of collective catharsis. It represented the release of pent-up energy, the fervent hope for brighter days ahead. As the flames grew higher, I felt a sense of unity with those around me. We were all witness to this powerful ritual, bound together by our shared experiences and the magic of the moment.


As the fire gradually consumed the galley, the crowd began to disperse, their faces lit with smiles and eyes shining with memories. The festival may have come to a close, but the spirit and energy it evoked would continue to resonate within each of us.


The burning of the galley was the unforgettable climax to my Up Helly Aa adventure. It embodied the spirit of the festival – a celebration of tradition, community, and the indomitable human spirit. It left me with a profound appreciation for the Shetland Islands, its people, and the power of ancient traditions that continue to inspire and captivate.


In the concluding section, I will reflect on my overall experience and share why Up Helly Aa was truly my best adventure yet.



My adventure to Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands was nothing short of extraordinary. From the moment I arrived in Shetland, to the anticipation of the night before, to witnessing the torchlight procession and the burning of the galley, every moment filled me with a sense of awe and wonder.


The festival itself was a celebration of community, heritage, and the enduring spirit of the Shetland people. The torchlit procession, with its rhythmic beats, haunting music, and vibrant costumes, was a mesmerizing display of culture and tradition. The burning of the galley was a powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal, evoking emotions that will forever stay with me.


But my adventure in Shetland went beyond the festival. I explored the rugged landscapes, discovered ancient archaeological sites, and marveled at the diversity of wildlife that called the islands home. The warmth and friendliness of the Shetland people added an extra layer of magic to the experience, making me feel like a welcomed guest in their unique corner of the world.


Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands was an adventure that exceeded all my expectations. It was a reminder of the power of ancient traditions, the resilience of communities, and the joy that comes from immersing oneself in new experiences.


As I reflect on my time in Shetland, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to witness and be a part of such a remarkable celebration. The memories I made, the sights I saw, and the connections I forged will forever hold a special place in my heart.


If you’re seeking an adventure that will ignite your spirit and leave you with memories to last a lifetime, I wholeheartedly recommend Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands. Immerse yourself in the rich heritage, revel in the warmth of the community, and witness the magic as the flames of the galley light up the night sky.


Prepare to be captivated, inspired, and transformed. Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands truly is an adventure unlike any other.