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Up Helly Aa: The Viking Festival Of Fire


Modified: December 27, 2023

by Mirabella Mcdonnell



Up Helly Aa is a vibrant and captivating Viking festival celebrated in the Shetland Islands, located off the northeastern coast of Scotland. This annual event has deep historical roots and is a highlight of Shetland’s cultural calendar. Up Helly Aa is known for its fiery spectacle and lively processions, making it a truly unique experience that attracts visitors from around the world.


The festival takes place on the last Tuesday of January, culminating in the dramatic burning of a Norse longship. It celebrates the rich Viking heritage of the islanders and showcases their strong sense of community and pride. With its origins dating back over a century, Up Helly Aa has evolved into a grand display of tradition, creativity, and camaraderie.


Throughout this article, we will delve into the fascinating history of Up Helly Aa, explore the origins of the Viking festival, and uncover the breathtaking spectacle of the burning of the galley. We will also take a closer look at the procession of guizers, who play a central role in the festivities, as well as the evening entertainment that follows.


Furthermore, we will examine how Up Helly Aa has evolved over the years and the impact it has on the Shetland community. From fostering a sense of togetherness to promoting cultural heritage, this festival showcases the resilience and creativity of the people of Shetland.


So, join us as we embark on a journey into the world of Up Helly Aa, immersing ourselves in the awe-inspiring traditions and celebrations of this Viking festival of fire.


History of Up Helly Aa

The origins of Up Helly Aa can be traced back to the 19th century when the festival first took shape in the Shetland Islands. During this time, the Shetlanders were experiencing a renaissance of their Viking heritage, fueled by a growing interest in Norse mythology and history. Inspired by their ancestors, the islanders sought to revive the ancient traditions and rituals of the Vikings.


It was in the 1880s when the first official Up Helly Aa celebration was organized in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. The festival was initially intended to showcase the rich Viking heritage of the Shetlanders and to instill a sense of community pride. The early celebrations consisted of a torchlight procession through the streets of Lerwick, culminating in the burning of a replica Viking longship. This act symbolized the Viking tradition of sending off their deceased chiefs to the afterlife by setting their ships ablaze.


Over the years, Up Helly Aa evolved and grew in popularity, becoming a major event in Shetland’s annual calendar. The festival was suspended during the two world wars but made a triumphant return in the post-war era. Today, Up Helly Aa in Lerwick is the largest and most renowned of all the Up Helly Aa celebrations in Shetland.


The festival’s success can be attributed to the dedication of the local communities who organize and participate in its various activities. Each year, a group of individuals known as the “Guizer Jarl” is chosen to lead the festivities. The Guizer Jarl is the central figure of Up Helly Aa and represents a Viking chief. He and his squad of guizers meticulously plan and prepare for the event, ensuring every detail is perfect.


Throughout its history, Up Helly Aa has remained true to its Viking roots, showcasing the unique cultural heritage of the Shetland Islands. The festival has also adapted to the changing times, incorporating elements of modernity while preserving its traditional essence. It has become an opportunity for the Shetlanders to proudly display their artistic skills, craftsmanship, and community spirit.


Thus, the history of Up Helly Aa is a journey of revival, passion, and cultural pride. It is a testament to the enduring legacy of the Vikings and the vibrant traditions that still thrive in the Shetland Islands today.


Origins of the Viking Festival

The origins of Up Helly Aa and its ties to Viking heritage can be traced back to the historical influence of the Norsemen in the Shetland Islands. The Norse takeover of the islands began in the 8th century when Vikings from Norway migrated to the area. For several centuries, the Shetland Islands were under Norse rule, and their culture and traditions left an indelible mark on the islanders.


The Viking festival of Up Helly Aa draws inspiration from the Norse traditions of fire festivals, which were an integral part of Viking society. In the Viking era, these festivals were held during the winter months to commemorate the end of the Yule season and to welcome the return of longer days. Fire was considered a powerful symbol of purification and renewal, and its use in these festivals was believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune for the forthcoming year.


When the Vikings settled in the Shetland Islands, they brought with them their customs, including their affinity for fire festivals. Over time, these traditions merged with the existing Shetlandic culture, resulting in the creation of Up Helly Aa as it is known today.


The burning of the galley, which is the highlight of Up Helly Aa, has its roots in ancient Viking funeral rites. The Vikings believed in sending off their deceased chiefs in grand fashion, often by setting their ships ablaze. This ritual was seen as a way to honor the departed and to ensure a successful journey to the afterlife.


Up Helly Aa, therefore, pays homage to this ancient tradition by burning a replica Viking longship. The construction of the galley is a meticulous process that involves skilled craftsmen and artisans who strive to recreate the intricate details of the Viking ships. The burning of the galley is a symbolic act that represents the end of one year and the beginning of a new cycle, embracing the spirit of renewal and transformation.


Today, Up Helly Aa stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the Vikings in the Shetland Islands. It serves as a reminder of their rich cultural heritage and their deep connection to the land and sea. The festival allows both locals and visitors to immerse themselves in the ancient traditions and customs of the Norsemen, preserving their memory and celebrating their contributions to the history of the Shetland Islands.


The Burning of the Galley

One of the most awe-inspiring and dramatic moments of Up Helly Aa is the burning of the galley. This longstanding tradition symbolizes the culmination of the festival and pays homage to the Viking heritage of the Shetland Islands.


The construction of the galley is a meticulous process that begins months in advance. Skilled craftsmen and volunteers work tirelessly to build a replica Viking longship, carefully recreating the intricate details of the vessel. The galley is often adorned with traditional Norse motifs and designs, showcasing the artistic talents of the builders.


On the day of the festival, the galley takes center stage as part of a grand procession through the streets of Lerwick. The Guizer Jarl, the revered leader of the festival, along with his squad of guizers, leads the way, proudly carrying torches and guiding the galley through the town.


As night falls and the procession reaches its final destination, the galley is ceremoniously set ablaze. The flames engulf the vessel, illuminating the night sky and casting a mesmerizing glow over the crowd. The burning of the galley is a symbolic act, representing the end of one year and the beginning of a new cycle. It signifies a farewell to the past and a welcoming of new beginnings.


The burning of the galley is not only a visual spectacle but also a sensory experience. The crackling sound of the fire, the heat radiating from the flames, and the scent of burning wood create a powerful atmosphere that captivates the audience.


This ritual represents the Viking tradition of sending off their deceased chiefs to the afterlife by setting their ships ablaze. It is a symbolic farewell, honoring the ancestral spirits and embracing the concept of transformation and renewal.


The burning of the galley is not just an act of destruction, but a celebration of heritage, community, and the resilience of the Shetland people. It is a moment that brings together locals and visitors alike, fostering a sense of unity and pride in the shared history and traditions of the islands.


Witnessing the burning of the galley during Up Helly Aa is a truly unforgettable experience. It is a testament to the enduring power of ancient rituals and their ability to connect us to our roots, even in the modern world. The flames of the galley flicker and dance, reminding us of the rich Viking heritage that continues to burn bright in the heart of the Shetland Islands.


Procession and Guizers

At the heart of Up Helly Aa is the vibrant and lively procession of guizers, who play a central role in the festival. Dressed in elaborate and intricately designed costumes, these participants bring the streets of Lerwick to life with their energy, creativity, and enthusiasm.


The procession begins with the Guizer Jarl and his squad of guizers leading the way, proudly carrying torches and guiding the galley through the streets. The Guizer Jarl is the revered leader of the festival, dressed as a Viking chief, symbolizing the connection to Shetland’s Viking heritage. His squad of guizers follows closely behind, all donning unique and impressive Viking-inspired costumes.


Each year, the Guizer Jarl and his squad select a specific theme for their costumes, which ranges from mythical figures to historical characters. The costumes are meticulously designed and crafted, showcasing the immense creativity and artistic talent of the participants. The guizers take great pride in their costumes and often spend months preparing and perfecting their outfits.


As the procession moves through the streets, the guizers entertain the onlookers with lively music, dancing, and performances. The atmosphere is charged with excitement and anticipation, as the crowd is swept up in the energy and enthusiasm of the guizers. The joyous sounds of traditional Shetland music fill the air, creating a festive ambiance that is unique to Up Helly Aa.


Throughout the procession, the guizers interact with the crowd, engaging in playful banter and distributing sweet treats or tokens known as “scrambles.” Children eagerly await these scrambles, as they try to collect as many as possible as a memento of the festival. This interaction adds an element of fun and excitement to the festivities, fostering a sense of community and celebration.


Aside from their participation in the procession, guizers also take part in various other events and activities during Up Helly Aa. They perform skits and acts known as “guizing,” entertaining audiences in community halls and private residences. The guizers showcase their talents and creativity through comedic plays, recitals, and music performances.


To be chosen as a guizer is considered a great honor, and those who participate take their roles seriously. The commitment and dedication of the guizers reflect the strong sense of community spirit and pride that Up Helly Aa embodies.


In essence, the procession of guizers is the lifeblood of Up Helly Aa. Their colorful costumes, infectious energy, and captivating performances create a remarkable spectacle that draws locals and visitors into the magic of the festival. It is a display of the artistic prowess, camaraderie, and deep connection to tradition that defines the spirit of Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands.


Evening Entertainment

After the spectacular burning of the galley and the lively procession, the festivities of Up Helly Aa continue into the night with a series of electrifying evening entertainment events. These events provide an opportunity for both locals and visitors to immerse themselves in the vibrant traditions and jovial atmosphere of the festival.


One of the most highly anticipated events following the procession is the grand halls, where guizers perform a variety of entertaining acts and skits. These performances take place in community halls and private residences, creating an intimate setting where the audience can enjoy the talent and creativity of the guizers up close.


The guizers entertain the spectators with comedic plays, music recitals, storytelling, and singing. The performances are often light-hearted and humorous, providing an evening of laughter and entertainment. The guizers’ dedication to their roles shines through, as they deliver memorable and engaging performances filled with wit and charm.


In addition to the grand halls, there are also dances and ceilidhs held throughout the evening. These dances are a lively celebration of Shetlandic culture, featuring traditional music and dancing. Locals and visitors come together to dance to the energetic tunes of fiddles and accordions, creating a joyful and energetic atmosphere.


The evening entertainment is not limited to traditional Shetlandic music and dancing. Up Helly Aa has evolved to include modern elements, such as live bands and DJs, catering to a wider audience with diverse musical tastes. These contemporary performances add a dynamic and contemporary touch to the festivities, appealing to both the young and the young at heart.


Food and drink play a significant role in the evening entertainment of Up Helly Aa. Traditional Shetlandic cuisine, including delicacies like smoked salmon, lamb dishes, and oatcakes, are often served. A traditional “supper” is also held, where participants indulge in a meal featuring local specialties and traditional Viking fare.


The evening entertainment events create a sense of camaraderie and celebration, bringing together locals and visitors in a joyous and festive atmosphere. It is a time to relax, socialize, and enjoy the vibrant cultural offerings of the Shetland Islands.


Ultimately, the evening entertainment of Up Helly Aa encapsulates the spirit of the festival – a fusion of tradition and modernity, celebration and entertainment. It is a time to revel in the talents of the guizers, dance to the lively music, savor the flavors of Shetlandic cuisine, and create lasting memories in the company of friends, old and new.


Up Helly Aa Today

Up Helly Aa has evolved over the years to become a cherished and highly anticipated event in the Shetland Islands. While rooted in Viking traditions, the festival has embraced modern elements, attracting an increasing number of participants and spectators each year.


Today, Up Helly Aa is a grand celebration that showcases the creativity, craftsmanship, and community spirit of the Shetland people. The festival has become a platform for local artists, musicians, and performers to showcase their talents and contributions. It is an opportunity for the islanders to express their pride in their cultural heritage and share it with the world.


The festival has also gained international recognition, attracting visitors from various parts of the globe who come to experience the unique festivities firsthand. The influx of tourists has not only contributed to the local economy but also created a vibrant and diverse atmosphere during the festival.


Up Helly Aa has also become a source of inspiration for other communities and festivals worldwide. Its success and longevity serve as a testament to the enduring power of tradition and the importance of preserving cultural heritage. The festival has paved the way for similar events in different parts of the world, promoting the celebration and exploration of Viking culture and history.


However, Up Helly Aa also faces challenges in maintaining its traditions while accommodating modern expectations. The festival organizers strive to strike a delicate balance between preserving the authentic essence of the event and adapting to the changing times. It is a continuous effort to ensure that Up


Impact on the Shetland Community

Up Helly Aa has a profound impact on the Shetland community, reaching far beyond the celebration itself. The festival serves as a catalyst for bringing the community together, fostering a sense of unity, pride, and cultural identity.


First and foremost, Up Helly Aa strengthens the bonds between the residents of the Shetland Islands. The festival requires extensive coordination and cooperation among various community groups, volunteers, and organizations. From the construction of the galley to the organization of events, every aspect of Up Helly Aa relies on the collective effort and dedication of the locals. Through their participation, individuals develop a deep sense of belonging and camaraderie.


In particular, Up Helly Aa has a significant impact on the younger generation of Shetlanders. Children and teenagers actively participate in the festival as junior guizers, passing down the traditions and rituals to future generations. This involvement helps instill a sense of cultural pride and identity from an early age, ensuring the continued preservation of Shetlandic heritage.


The festival also has economic benefits for the Shetland community. The influx of visitors during Up Helly Aa provides a boost to the local economy, benefiting businesses, accommodation providers, and tourism-related industries. The festival serves as a showcase for the unique cultural offerings and natural beauty of the Shetland Islands, attracting tourists and encouraging them to explore other aspects of the region.


Furthermore, Up Helly Aa has a positive impact on the mental and emotional well-being of the community. It offers a much-needed respite from the long, dark winter months, injecting a sense of joy, excitement, and anticipation into the lives of the residents. The festival provides an opportunity to socialize, connect with others, and celebrate the rich heritage and traditions that make Shetland so special.


Up Helly Aa also plays a vital role in cultural preservation. The festival acts as a platform for showcasing and reviving traditional crafts, music, and storytelling. It ensures that these cultural practices are passed down to future generations, preventing them from fading into obscurity.


Moreover, Up Helly Aa promotes tourism and raises the global awareness of the Shetland Islands. It puts the region on the map as a cultural and historical destination, attracting visitors who are fascinated by the Viking heritage and want to experience the festival firsthand. This exposure not only brings economic benefits but also helps to promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of the unique identity and history of the Shetland community.


In sum, the impact of Up Helly Aa on the Shetland community is multifaceted and far-reaching. It fosters unity, celebrates cultural heritage, boosts the local economy, and provides a sense of joy and pride for the residents. The festival serves as a testament to the strength of community spirit and the enduring legacy of the Viking heritage in the Shetland Islands.



Up Helly Aa is not just a festival; it is a manifestation of the deep cultural heritage and community spirit of the Shetland Islands. Rooted in Viking traditions and rituals, this vibrant celebration has evolved over the years into a grand spectacle that captivates both locals and visitors alike.


From its humble beginnings to its status as a world-renowned event, Up Helly Aa has embraced tradition while incorporating modern elements, ensuring its relevance in the contemporary world. The festival’s impact extends beyond the celebration itself, strengthening the bonds within the Shetland community and promoting a sense of pride and belonging.


The burning of the galley, the vibrant procession of guizers, and the evening entertainment all contribute to the enchanting atmosphere and showcase the talents of the islanders. The festival instills cultural pride in the younger generation and fosters a sense of unity among all who participate.


Moreover, Up Helly Aa has economic benefits for the Shetland Islands, boosting the local economy through increased tourism and providing a platform for the promotion of Shetlandic culture and heritage.


Through Up Helly Aa, the Shetland community proudly showcases its rich Viking heritage, creating a lasting impact on both locals and visitors. The festival serves as a reminder of the enduring legacy of the Vikings, the resilience of the Shetland people, and the importance of cultural preservation.


As the flames of the galley illuminate the night sky and the sound of Shetland’s traditional music fills the air, Up Helly Aa embodies the spirit of the Shetland Islands – a celebration of history, artistry, and togetherness. It remains an unforgettable experience that showcases the unique identity and cultural richness of the Shetland community.