Up Helly Aa Fire Festival – A northern Mardi Gras with Vikings
From burning tar barrels to camp weirdness

‘From grand old Viking centuries, Up Helly Aa has come…’

the guizers sing.

In fact, the Scottish festival is only just over 100 years old in its more civilized form.

The lads from the 1906 Up Helly Aa Jarl Squad

Victorian tradition of rolling burning tar barrels

In the 19th century Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, Shetland was a riot.

Special constables were called in to curb trigger-happy drunks firing guns in the air – and rolling a blazing tar barrel through the streets.

Rival groups of tarbarrelers often fought in the middle of Lerwick’s extremely narrow streets.

On Christmas Eve in 1824, a visiting Methodist missionary wrote in his diary that:

“the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting.”

Often the tar barrel wound up on the on the doorstep of the year’s most pompous citizen.

The Up Helly Aa Jarl Squad

Only the lead, or Jarl Squad, wear Viking dress.

A person must be on a special committee for 15 years before they can be a Jarl – and each year just one person is elected to it.

The other guizers wear costumes ranging from the almost sublime to the totally ridiculous.

You’ll see Celtic drag queens, Popes and Gary Glitters armed with large flaming torches.

Each guizer hoists a stout fencing post, topped with a hessian sack.

They soaked these torches in fuel the night before Up Hella Ya.

On the stroke of 7.30pm, a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall.

Torches lit, the band strikes up and the 1,000-strong, amazing procession begins.

It blazes for half a mile before reaching the Guizer Jarl.

He stands proudly at the helm of his doomed replica Viking longship.

The guizers circle the dragon ship in a slow-motion ring of fire.

As the inferno destroys four months of work by the galley builders, the crowd belts out  ‘The Norseman’s Home’.

It doesn’t end here.

According to Bryan Peterson :

“Up Helly Aa is 36 hours of lawlessness, where by-laws are bypassed, marital vows are suspended, and health and safety becomes very subjective”

As the night rolls on, more than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen halls in rotation.

The squads take turns to entertain in halls presided over by ‘hostesses’.

The platters are piled high, the tattie soup is on the boil and the Famous Grouse flows.

The next day the Vikings rest.

In recent years, the evening procession has been streamed live.

Keep an eye on this Facebook page for plans for live broadcasts.

 

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.