At Up Helly Aa, a festival in Scotland’s Shetland islands the people remain loyal to their Scandinavian ancestral roots. On the last Tuesday of January each year a series of grand marches and processions take place, ultimately leading to a ceremonial burning of a 9 meter long Galley – a traditional Nordic long boat.
The event is a truly unique experience that the locals of the Shetland islands are truly proud of; preparations begin in February for the following year’s event and all of the participants must meet a stringent set of prerequisites, including having lived in the islands for at least 5 years.
The first festival took place in 1880 and has been an important annual tradition since then, only being missed in exceptional circumstances such as the death of Queen Victoria and the two World Wars. You can expect to be engulfed in the droning of horns and beating drums of Viking music lead by the folk stories and melodies passed down through generations. Up Helly Aa even has its own song which has become an important part of the celebrations.
The Guizer Jarl, the chief Guizer and leader of the Jarl squad – the vikings for the day, leads a number of ‘squads’ through the town, which dresses up for the occasion with many local businesses getting involved in the annual ‘shop window dressing’ competition. At nightfall a 1,000 strong troupe of torch bearing Guizers light up the town in a red-glow, to the cheers of the thousands of spectators.
‘Preparations for the following year’s Up Helly Aa begin 11 months in advance with the whole community chipping in to ensure the festival’s success’
The festival is an authentic local community gathering to celebrate a rich cultural history that is a must for anyone interested in Scottish heritage or Nordic traditions.
The Shetland Islands are easily accessible by ferry from Aberdeen and Orkney and by domestic flight from the Scottish mainland airports. The island has an excellent public transport system and a number of taxi services. If you’re wanting to explore some more of the islands after the festival the inter island ferries are daily and regular making the whole of the northern Scottish isles accessible.
The people of the Shetland Islands are renowned for their hospitality and guest houses and apartments are in abundance. Traditional accommodations like hotels and B&Bs are available and a whole host of camp sites are available (although many are closed during the winter months). It is advisable to book in advance for the festival as it is one of the peak times of year for tourism.
The Shetland Islands are an outdoor adventurer’s dream destination. The coastal cliffs facing the North Sea, serene lochs and rugged landscape make the islands an excellent walking or cycling destination year round. The extensive coastline and natural coves that encompass the islands offer great sailing, diving, kayaking and fishing regardless of weather conditions. There are also four golf courses around the islands and during the summer twilight tee times are even offered at midnight for a truly unique golfing experience.
The festival takes place on Tuesday, 29th January 2019
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