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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Shetland - Up Helly Aa

Shetland is quite a bit further North than Orkney and though there are links between the two island groups and we share much of a cultural heritage, there are also differences. There's an old saying that Orkney men are farmers who fish, and Shetland men are fishermen who farm.

Anyway one fine tradition in Shetland are the annual mid-winter fire festivals - Up Helly Aa.  Islands and parishes hold these throughout January and they culminate in the main festival in Lerwick. It's a great spectacle and draws lots of tourists too.

Over recent years there have been webcams and some fairly amateurish attempts to broadcast it over the net.  But this year it was broadcast by 60N.TV and was very professionally done with commentators and various camera angles.  I captured some of it using screen shots on my laptop and so am sharing these with you now below.  For really good sharp photos take a look at the BBC new website here

Shetland and Orkney share a Viking heritage and Up Helly Aa celebrates the viking past. A jarl squad of Vikings parades round Lerwick with flaming torches, hundreds in the procession.  Each squad will wear a different uniform.  And the Guiser Jarl (head jarl of the ceremony) is pulled through the town on a longship which is then ceremoniously burned. Hopefully the Guiser Jarl makes a quick escape!

It must be a health and safety nightmare but is a real spectacle - even watched online!  So I hope you enjoy just a flavour of the festival through these screen shot photos!

As darkness fell the boys and young men were the first to begin a procession and burn their longship.

Wonderful Viking winged helmets!

The torchlight procession. Hundreds of men with burning torches

Slowly the procession gathers into a great circle

And the torches are thrown onto the longship

Every man with a torch will throw it onto the vessel

I could just feel the heat even watching online!

It was a windy night with rain showers, bitterly cold - but the fire would keep them warm!

The longship would have been built by local men especially for the festival

And as the ship burned, fire burned in the sky too. Fireworks!

Hope you enjoyed your brief visit to Up Helly Aa!  Although the fireworks signaled the end of the festival outdoors, it went on indoors for many hours.  Each squad would tour round the halls where there would be music and dancing, and they would be given refreshments and a warming drink (ahem!).

In Lerwick apparently all the squads are male, but other squads around Shetland are mixed.  One of the commentators was trying to say that the Lerwick women had an important part in the festival too, providing all the refreshments etc.  Well I'm a Warrior Woman and I would want a torch! Don't put me by the sink!  Or the cake for that matter, if you want any left! Ha!


  1. Really does sound amazing, I will enjoy looking at the BBC website.

  2. Wonderful photos, thanks for sharing them. I would love to attend this festival.

  3. Quite a sight, the huge crowd, and the big flames. Wow. What a festival. Thanks for sharing.

  4. What a grand and historic spectacle.

  5. what a beautiful fire festival
    the best part, I think is the part afterwards
    thank you that you have shown us the up Helly Aa
    you have so many traditions that we do not really know. I love it.

  6. Fabulous! I love that these ancient rites still go on. What a spectacle.

  7. Aye, right enough, I widnae want to stand between you and a cake. There's easier ways to die, but not many! So I, too, will look forward to our next cafe meeting with some trepidation ;o)

  8. Wow thank you for sharing, I would love to have been there.

  9. Great screen shots which really capture the atmosphere. I remember enjoying Ann Cleeves' first Shetland novel "Raven Black" which features Up Helly Aa.

  10. Women in the kitchen described as "taking part" ! Thought we'd left THAT mentality far behind us. I'm with you girl, holding my virtual flaming torch and screaming for all I'm worth.

    I am sure during the long darkness that is broken only by your short days, those rising flames and fireworks are a tonic for the soul.