On the windswept northern most group of islands in the UK – the Shetland Isles – something of a mania takes over once a year.
The townsfolk of Lerwick, the administrative centre of Shetland, gets taken over by horde of Vikings who parade around the town pulling their hand-built galley then lighting torches of fire as night draws in before burning the heck out of their galley.
And it does not end there – in fact, that is just the start.
After burning their galley the horde, which splits into 40+ squads of by then alcohol-fuelled men, goes on to perform acts and take part in dances right through the night until at least 8am.
Even then, some carry on into the next day – a local public holiday for obvious alcohol related reasons – for that evening there is then ‘the hop’. At a smaller number of venues bands play music and everyone gets involved in yet more dancing.
This is Up Helly Aa. There is nothing else like it!
For the townsfolk of Lerwick this is the biggest event in their year – men who have left the island don’t come back for Christmas or New Year, they come back for Up Helly Aa.
The preparation for it is also telling – the head of the leading squad, called the Jarl, is given 15 years notice that he will be a Jarl. I’m told this then sparks the man taking out a bond or insurance to help him pay for the expensive Viking suits specially made for them – as well as everything else they have to buy and prepare for.
So what is all this malarky all about?
Well, it’s actually not the ancient Nordic festival you might assume, although it has pagan routes.
There had been a tradition of rolling burning barrels of tar around as a bit of a New Year celebration. BUt this – aided with alcohol (a theme here) – got a bit out of hand so it was banned. But that sparked a bit of a riot so they decided they had to do something. This, in the late 1880s, turned into an early version of Up Helly Aa, which has pretty much evolved into what it is today (according to what I read about it anyway!).
So, what happens? While when you look up Up Helly Aa all the pcitures and chat is about the main event – the burning of the galley – actually there’s a lot more going on.
It all starts early in the morning. The Jarl’s squad gathers, dressed in their viking finery, and parade through the town from about 9.30am, pulling along a wooden hand built galley they have spent the last c4 months building.
Masses of crowds line the streets – mostly locals looking out for people they know in the squad (you have to have lived in Lerwick at least 5 years to be in a squad and abviously longer in the Jarl’s squad, it being such an honour) and tourists.
They are led by a marching band and another is waiting for them at a quay where the galley is finally parked up for people to get a good look at and the squad gets their photo taken as a group.
The Jarl’s squad then goes off to tour around schools, retirement homes etc.
Now the Jarl’s squad – of about 30 people – is only one of this year 47 squads. While the Jarl’s squad is touring the rest of the squads are getting dressed into their outfits – each has to declare a theme, to which they create an act or dance and dress up to. This ranges from local politics to disney films.
At 7pm, they all gather near the town hall. The Jarl’s squad light up their torches first and then the rest of the squads, lining the pavements of one long street in the centre of town, light their torches. Formed and ready, the Jarl’s squad marches up the centre of the rest and then lead a procession along with the pipe band of two columns of men through the town’s streets, forming what feels like a ring of fire – despite the driving freezing rain we were stood in!
Finally they converge on a park in the town centre, where the galley has been brought to, and circle it, forming a massive ring of blazing torches around it.
After more piped music they then all throw their torches into the galley, setting it alight – burning to cinders their four months of hard work!
Next they break off and gather in their groups to find buses and shipping containers on the backs of lorries that will be their transport around 12 halls. Each of the 47 squads has a bus or shipping container!
The visitors/audience go to their halls – one of 12 (I was in the town hall) – and await the arrival of the squads. Each takes it in turn to perform their skit/act/dance before then having a bit of a dance with the audience to the music of a ceilidh band on the stage of that hall.
I tried to take a photo and remember each act but I think by 3am I’d lost track!!! And there are pictures of skits on my camera I can’t remember taking! I did do a good job of learning a bit of the Boston Twostep from a number of squad members tho!
Now, when I talk about these skits/acts and the dressing up these squads do, it cannot be underestimated the effort these people go to (even when it’s 7am and half the audience has given in and gone to bed and they’ve drank lord only knows how much booze on their travels.
As a flavour of the skits, here are a few described.
The first, also one of my favourite, saw snow white arrive, dance around the room and then pass out into a coma on the floor (full proper snow white costume, hair done and make up). In come the seven dwarves and one tries to give her cpr to ‘Staying Alive’ (a little joke referring to the advert with Vinnie Jones showing how you give cpr). The dwarf is pretty much failing and then in comes Darth VAder and a bunch of storm troopers- all in full regalia. Darth brings snow white back to life and then they get married – with Luke Skywalker handing Darth a suitcase on which is written a message about a dowry to George Lucas. This whole skit is a parody about Disney taking over George Lucas’ films!
Another sees a group of aliens playing with beach balls and taking photos like tourists until a warning sounds and they hide under brown blankets. In comes the Mars Rover with two NASA astronauts. It drives around and, not seeing anything but ‘brown boulders’, leaves the room. The aliens then come back out and perform a dance happy they’ve not been found.
One skit saw the squad paint a face on their bellies with the mouth around their belly buttons, which they made move by sucking in their stomachs!
Some skits were local comment – one taking the mickey out of the chap who makes the torches, insinuating he’d spent too much time on his garden (what seemed like a mini canabis farm) instead of making the torches good.
Another was about Shetland’s schools being sold off but then a massive brand new one being built.
Others were just simple, like a squad dressed as the characters of the animated movie Madagascar, a squad who did a scene from Dad’s Army and another dressed as Mexicans performing 1980s music (like the El Paso advert).
There were 47 of these in various shapes and forms through the night!
Everyone is fantastically friendly – the squad members, other tourists and locals – it is such an amazing night. I nearly fell asleep on the loo at about 6am and made use of the supper room – where there was a buffet (with lovely salt beef on bannocks, mmmmm, as well as a load of other stuff) and tea and coffee being served.
You bring your own alcohol, which is stored in a room and given a number. You take your number through each time you want some more drink and they get it out for you.
By the end of the night they recognise you and what you’re drinking so there’s no need for your ticket! The squads are happy to let you have a look on their bus/in their shipping container and seem to be having such an amazing time.
I finally got to my B&B at 8am and was very ready for sleep. I then flew home that night – but for the rest there’s another night of partying, called the hop. This, apparently, is in just six halls and has bands playing music. At 5pm when I was getting the bus to the airport there were still squad members walking about in their fancy dress from the night before!!! And I saw a mini torch procession going through some houses on the edge of Lerwick.
They’re all crazy mad and have a massively fun time.
I should add that Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa is just one of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa events – each of the main towns has its own one and they are on through January and February.
At the Lerwick one the galley is burned on land but at at least one of the others it is burned as it floats off on the sea.