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Up Helly Aa!

Updated: Jan 29, 2019

Procession January 2015. Photograph by Marc Chivers

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa is one of a series of fire festivals that take place across Shetland at this time of year. The famous procession and the galley burning are dramatic events to experience, and for many tourists that is their only experience; not realising that the ritual burning of the galley is merely the Up Helly Aa aperitif! The main event is to go to one of the many halls with your family and friends. Here, the night vanishes in a blur of drinking, dancing, and pondering the often bizarre performances provided by the 40 plus squads, who take turns to visit each of the halls providing entertainment to the merry onlookers. The wonderful thing about Up Helly Aa is that it is intergenerational, there is no ageism; older folk dance with young folk, it's great.

Up Helly Aa is often described as a Viking festival and while it does reflect the Nordic identity of the isles it sadly has no Viking roots. This Viking invention was the result of nineteenth century Romantic writers such as Jessie Saxby, J.J. Haldane Burgess (the composer of the Up Helly Aa Song), Gilbert Goudie, and Charles Rampini (who became Sheriff Depute in 1878). During the 1880s there was a rise in Viking romanticism prompted by such things as the discovery of the Gokstad ship burial in west Norway. This resulted in the first organised torch light procession taking place in 1881. As Leslie Brydon (2011) points out, the purpose of Up Helly Aa is to have fun during the dark Shetland winter. So, Moder Dy wishes all those who are going to Up Helly Aa fun & laughter!

The ritual burning of the galley. Photograph by Marc Chivers

And finally the fireworks! Photograph by Marc Chivers


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