Up Helly Aa – Shetland Fire Festival in Scotland

The Shetland Fire Festival Up Helly Aa, Europe’s largest fire festival, is a series of 12 fire festivals that take place in many places on the Shetland Islands of Scotland.

The Fire Festival is dedicated to the memory of the Vikings who ruled the Shetland Islands in the 9th century over 1000 years ago for about 500 years. The Shetland Islands became part of Scotland in 1468. The event is held annually on the last Tuesday of January in the city of Lerwick, Scotland.

In the tradition of the Scandinavian Vikings, a spectacular procession takes place to celebrate the end of winter and the return of the sun.

Visitors from all over the world can visit this small town to celebrate this old festival. However, they must be residents of the Shetland Islands for 5 years to join the squad and procession.

Up Helly Aa Fire Festival
Up Helly Aa Fire Festival. Photo by Vicky Brock, Wunderstock

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, the parade begins with the blazing procession of the Jarl of the Viking Squad, a leading group of 1,000 men wearing Viking dress. The Guizer Jarl proudly stands at the helm of his replica longship, or ‘galley’.

It is kept secret what the head of the festival, “Jarler Gieser – Lord of Lerwick”, will wear, and which character from the Scandinavian sagas he will represent every year.

Shetland fire festival
Up Helly Aa Fire Festival. Photo by Vicky Brock, Wunderstock

The Vikings wear sheepskins, and carry axes, shields, and torches and are accompanied by traditional Up Helly Aa songs performed by a brass band.

The crowd is dressed in costumes from almost sublime to completely ridiculous. Women take part in the festival, organizing and preparing food, and creating a wonderful atmosphere of one of the most striking events of the year.

Up Helly Aa Fire Festival
Up Helly Aa Fire Festival. Photo by Vicky Brock, Wunderstock

The event is run exclusively by thousands of volunteers and organizers and includes a series of marches and visits with stops at hospitals and schools.

The culminating even – the parade takes place when a torch-lit procession sets in the fire a replica of a Viking longship galley. The crowd sings “ The Norseman’s Home ” – a stirring requiem, after which the participants and spectators cannot hold back their tears, and then continue to dance all night in the local halls.

Up Helly Aa Fire Festival
Up Helly Aa Fire Festival. Photo by Vicky Brock, Wunderstock

All guides and participants visit a dozen halls, where they are invited to private parties, with the exception of a few lounges where tickets are sold to the general public.

Then Lerwick poet J.J. Haldane Burgess, published the novel The Viking Path, in 1894. This was the beginning of the formation of Up Helly Aa in the event known today.

If you did not know about this amazing festival and travel to the Shetland Islands later this year, you can still see many small fire festivals during the months of February to March on the islands.

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