In the middle of each winter, life in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands of Scotland is totally transformed by the celebration of Up Helly Aa Fire Festival, which is considered as the largest fire festival in Europe. The spectacular festival marks the end of the Yule season and is held on the last Tuesday in January every year to mark the Islands’ historical links with the Vikings. In the main ceremony the model of a Viking ship is burned in the middle of the town with passionate zeal and excitement.
During the early 8th century the Vikings repeatedly raided Scotland, especially they targeted the northern islands of Shetland and Orkney for Scandinavian settlement. They were called ‘Up Helly Aa’ by the Scots, which literally means ‘Up Holy (Day) All’. The word ‘Up’ was said to be derived from the Old Norse word ‘Uppi’, which is still used in Icelandic and Faroese. The word ‘Helly’ is derived from another Old Norse word, ‘Helgr’, meaning a holy day or festival, which signifies a series of festive days, with particular reference to the Christmas. The final word ‘Aa’ stands for ‘all.’
The festival involves a series of marches and processions, which traditionally first thrived at the main port of the Shetland Islands, in the town of Lerwick. Similar processions are also part of the more rural festival strewn across the islands. The grand processions march through the streets, dressed or disguised in various historical or satirical costumes and the main ‘guizer’ is called the ‘Jarl’. During the early 20th century, the ‘Jar’ or Jarl’ became an honorary role, however in medieval Scandinavia, a Jarl was a noble ranking just below King. There is a committee and only one person is elected to this committee each year. Before becoming a Jarl, a person must be a part of the committee for fifteen years, as it is his job to be the most prominent character in the festival. There is also the Jarl Squad, comprised of supporters of the Guizer Jarl, which is the principal one, out of all the squads of participants.
The colourful festival starts in the evening with the presence of more than 800 dramatically disguised men in themed costumes lined up in the semi dark streets. With the signal of a rocket over the Town Hall at the stroke of 7.30pm, the torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazingly blazing procession starts to move. The procession slowly treads to cover the half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly and in imposing manner at the helm of the fateful replica of his warship, or galley. The procession proceeds through a crowd of four or five thousand spectators and it takes considerable time for the Jarl's squad of burly Vikings to drag him to the burning site. The men in disguise encircle the dragon ship in a slow motion, like Catherine Wheel of fire. As the signal of another rocket explodes overhead, the Jarl leaves his ship, to a crescendo of cheers and with the sounds of a bugle, the torches are hurled into the galley. As the blazing and blinding fire engulfs and consumes the replica of the galley, the crowd sings a traditional sad song, a sad requiem for the tough Vikings, ‘The Norseman's Home.
However, the festival does not end with the end of the rituals. As the evening rolls into the night, all the squads gather at local venues such as schools or hotels and hold private parties. Apart from that, some halls also arrange private shows against sale tickets to the general public. In the halls each squad performs an act of its own, either a comical sketch of a local event, an enactment of a popular TV show or pop group or a singing and dancing performance displayed in spectacular costumes. Before consuming yet another drum filled with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks, each guizer is to dance with at least one of the ladies in the hall. Usually, the crazy parties continue all through the night and glides into the following morning. The dances and the mad celebrations are held again on the next day, known as the Hop Night.
Around 1840, the participants introduced tar barrels to the festivities, when the enthusiastic young people used to be divided into rival groups and drag burning tar barrels on sledges through the town. Often they ended in rowdy clashes in the middle of the narrow Main Street of Lerwick and thus hamper the peace of the locality. As the people complained against this part of the procession as dangerous and dirty, it was abolished by 1880 and the Yule torch procession replaced it. The celebration of the torch procession initially started in 1881. A special committee was formed around that time to continue to shape the festivities. The torch procession was also established by them to honor the visit of Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh.
The great fire festival of the Up Helly Aa changed its colour and character with the growth of the city of Lerwick. Till the beginning of World War II, it was generally a festival of young working male and the women never took part in the actual proceedings. The festival was officially cancelled in 1901, due to the demise of Queen Victoria. It was also discontinued during the entire duration of the two world wars. The festival resumed in 1949 and in that same year, the BBC aired a radio feature on Up Helly Aa. Today, apart from Lerwick, the celebrations take place in at least 10 different locations all over the Shetland Islands and processions are held in Scalloway, Nesting, South Mainland, and Bressay, to name a few.