Here’s what you can expect at Up Helly Aa fire festival, the Shetland Viking Festival that should be a bucket list item for anyone travelling in Europe in January! Seeing a thousand people march in a torchlight procession before they light up at the night sky really is a fabulous way to ring in the New Year. The Lerwick Up Helly Aa, the biggest Viking festival Shetland puts on, is one of the most incredible festivals you will ever attend.
About Up Helly Aa Scotland
Fire festivals in the dead of winter? A giant bonfire when its cold and dark outside is a good way to warm the bones and get a party started.
What is Up Helly Aa?
The Shetland fire festival is a celebration of the island’s Viking history. Even today, Shetland Islanders are of majority Scottish Vikings ancestry.
Although many Shetland communities celebrate this fire festival, the biggest Up Helly Aa fire festival is in Lerwick.
Even though this Nordic fire fire festival is internationally known, Up Helly Aa is very much a local festival for local people.
Where is Lerwick?
Lerwick is the main town, capital and port of the Shetland islands in the far north of Scotland.
Ok, where are the Shetland Islands?
The remote Shetland Islands are a group of islands in the North Sea located between mainland Scotland, the Orkneys, the Faroe Islands and Norway.
The Shetlands are about 100 miles north of Scotland and 140 miles west of Bergen in Norway. Only 16 of the around 100 island have people living on them.
Thanks to its geographic location, the Shetland Islands were settled by the Vikings as they expanded from their home territories. The Shetlands were a great stepping stone for the Vikings on the way to other places like England, Ireland and Iceland.
In the mid-15th century, Scotland acquired the Shetlands from Norway as part of the marriage between a Norwegian princess and a Scottish King.
When is Up Helly Aa?
The Lerwick Up Helly Aa is held on the last Tuesday of January every year.
Up Helly Aa 2024 is scheduled for Tuesday 30th January 2024.
Up Helly Aa History
Up Helly Aa used to be a celebration of the end of the Yule season, a Northern European tradition, and the upcoming lengthening of the days.
Shetland men who had fought the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century returned home to find themselves bored to tears in the long winters.
A festival is a way to break up the long cold winter months! Today, Up Helly Aa is limited to one day but, in the past, Up Helly Aa could last for days of drunken revelry.
Another change is that Up Helly Aa used to have competing groups of drunk and dangerous men rolling flaming tar barrels down the narrow streets!
By the 1870’s, the good citizens of Lerwick had enough. Up Helly Aa started to turn into the Lerwick festival format we know today. During the Victorian era and after the world wars, the festival came to have the elements we recognise today, such as the election of a chief Viking to lead a torchlit procession at the end of January.
In 2022, the Lerwick Up Hellya Aa committee decided that women could participate in the Viking fire festival.
Unfortunately Up Hellya Aa 2023 did not have very many women Guizers because the squads had been formed years previously. For example, the 2023 Guizer Jarl was initially supposed to lead in Up Helly Aa 2021. World events dictated that Up Helly Aa was cancelled in 2021 and 2022.
There are local versions of Up Helly Aa in the other communities of the Shetlands too. These other local events run from January to March. Dates will be announced on the Shetland’s official website.
Up Helly Aa Songs
Favourite Up Helly Aa songs include The Up Helly Aa Song, The Galley Song, and The Norseman’s Home.
You will hear them constantly throughout the Up Helly Aa proceedings including the torch-bearing guizers. Want to sing along with the Up Helly Aa songs? Find the song lyrics here.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa
Up Helly Aa is run entirely by volunteers and funded by donations from the local community.
Up Helly Aa Participants
Thousands of people participate in making Up Helly Aa happen. Similar to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, work for the following year festival is on a rolling schedule.
In addition to participating in the procession, there are lots of people involved as organisers, parade marshalls, hosts and hostesses at the Halls, drivers of the squads etc.
Moreover, the Viking long ship replica (i.e., Galley) and the thousands of torches are made by volunteers.
The Up Hellya Aa committee is made up of 17 people elected by the Guizers. To be elected as Viking chief, the Guizer Jarl has to have served 16 years in the committee biding their time and paying their dues.
Why is the Guizer Jarl so important?
The lead group in the procession is the Jarl Squad (i.e., Viking squad) which is headed by the Guizer Jarl.
What the Guizer Jarl will wear and what chieftain from the Norse Sagas they represent is kept secret to add to the drama. This information is released for the first time during Up Helly Aa itself.
There’s a years-long wait to be Guizer Jarl. We were told 3 poor men died before they even made it to Guizer Jarl.
Up Helly Aa Squads
The Jarl’s Squad wears viking dress but the rest of the procession are in disguises of all levels of weirdness. Being disguised gives the “guizers” their name.
Each squad has a theme and we saw fancy dress outfits running the gamut from people dressed as traffic cones to football players.
There was a full roster of 46 squads participating at Up Helly Aa 2023 with a total of 962 guizers.
Some of my favourite squad names included Picts wi’ Sticks, Blockhead Boris, Dis(nae)y Matter, Rainbow Warriors and I’m A Celebrity – It’s Fine Tae Be Oot Again. You can only imagine the outfits accompanying these names!
Junior Up Helly Aa
Lerwick has a Junior Up Helly Aa which is similar to the main Lerwick Up Helly Aa. Junior guizers are 15 secondary school students. They parade through the streets of Lerwick and have their own mini galley (the “peerie Galley”) which gets torched in the evening before the adults have their procession.
Although the Junior Up Helly Aa history starts in the early 20th century, the form we see now is from 1956. Just like its senior counterpart, the Junior Up Helly Aa has become more organised and disciplined with the passage of time.
Now the Junior Up Helly Aa is used to teach and prepare students for what is involved in the main Lerwick Up Helly Aa.
The 2023 Junior Up Helly Aa Jarl chose to portray famous viking, Audunn Thorolfsson from the Icelandic Sagas. There were 15 junior squads and 108 Guizers participating in the 2023 Junior Up Helly Aa.
Lerwick Up Helly Aa Festival Schedule
The big day is very busy for the Jarl Squad starting with a Viking procession in the morning and night parties that last well into the next morning. The festival takes place in Lerwick centre.
Jarl Squad Procession
The Guizer Jarl and the Jarl squad parade through the center of Lerwick accompanied by bagpipers and a marching band. The parade starts from 9:40 AM from the Royal British Legion and proceed down the Esplanade.
The Junior Squad join the Jarl Squad for part of the return procession on Commercial Street.
The Jarl Squad brings the Galley to its resting place for the day, Alexandra Wharf on the Esplanade. Then they continue down the Esplanade and process around the bill on Market Square. Finally the Jarl Squad process back to the Galley via Commercial Street.
Official photographs are taken at the Galley.
Check out the other things to do in Lerwick below such as exploring Lerwick’s charming shops.
As for the Jarl Squad, they have official activities to do visiting schools, offices etc..
As visitors, for example, you can see the Jarl Squad in front of the Shetland Museum at 3pm.
We also saw the Junior Up Helly Aa squad in a procession at the beginning of the Fiery Sessions mentioned below.
Evening Parade and Bonfire
On the evening of Lerwick Up Helly Aa day, the Junior Up Helly Aa starts at 5:30 at the burning site. After the remains of the Perrie Galley are cleared away, the site is ready for the main event.
The street lights are off and the inky night sky looms.
At 7:30 pm, a flare at Hillhead signals the beginning of the lighting of the torches. The torch-bearers then start marching lead by the Jarl Squad, the Galley and the Brass Band.
The Guizers all carry torches which are lit and follow behind the Guizer Jarl who stands proudly atop his Galley.
The route follows from Lower Hill Head, around Jubilee Flower Garden and King Harald Street. The final lap is Harbour Street, St Olaf Street and then the King George V playing field entrance on King Erik Street. There are a series of marches coordinated to the music.
The Jarl Squad and the Galley are the first into the field. The Galley is placed in the middle. The torch-bearing procession circles the Galley singing Up Hellya Aa songs.
At a signal, the torch-bearing guisers throw their torches into the Galley which gets burned to a crisp.
Their is a major cheer when the mast falls at the ceremonial burning.
We were super surprised by how long that mast held up before it finally fell! The Guizers leave the field and the Jarl Squad is the last to leave.
Night Festivities at the Halls
The evening parade events only last an hour from start to finish. Next up, it’s time for the private parties to start at the local halls!
The Halls are ticket-only events held at local public venues such as the Lerwick Town Hall, the Sound Primary School and Mereel Arts Venue.
These Hall tickets are like gold dust to obtain. You can sign up with the Shetland Tourist Office to be on a waiting list to get unused tickets. Even though I signed up on the waiting list as soon as I could, we did not get any tickets.
Although we did not get tickets, we met several sets of people who did. Everyone we met said the Halls were a lot of fun. They received their tickets through contacts on the island.
The Jarl Squad hits up its first Hall at 9:15pm. Then it’s a steady stream of halls and partying.
At the Halls, each Guizer squad comes in and does three skits. Then they engage in some traditional Scottish dance with some of the attendees to the traditional fiddle music of Shetland. Then they are off to the next Hall! It’s a round parties for the squads and varied entertainment for the Hall attendees.
If you are invited to the Halls, you will need to bring your own alcohol. There is food and soft drinks available.
But thanks to that Victorian temperance movement, alcohol isn’t served. There may even be a separate space for a bar area.
The Wednesday after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday. Most places in Lerwick will be closed including restaurants and supermarkets.
We did a road trip around Lerwick on the Wednesday and we saw revellers lurching through the town when we picked up the rental car on Wednesday morning at 9 AM!
10 Things To Do at Up Helly Aa
We have already outlined the main events of Up Hellya AA: the Jarl Squad Procession, the Evening Parade and Bonfire and the Night Festivities at the Halls above.
Here are some other things to do while you are in Lerwick for Up Helly Aa:
The Bill At The Market Cross
The Bill a proclamation that Up Helly Aa is happening, is posted at the Market Cross from 06:00 AM on Tuesday morning until 5pm. The proclamation is quite witty and a part of the morning Jarl Squad procession.
Alexandra Wharf Photographs
After the morning procession crowds disperse, you can take photographs with The Galley at Alexandra Wharf until 6pm.
Alternatively, the cute little Peerie Galley is in front of the Shetland Museum.
Shetland Museum has some fascinating collections about the islands history. There are timed sessions for entry. We took a guided tour which explained about both Up Helly Aa history as well as the history of Shetland.
The 3 pm timed session coincides with the Jarl Squad visit and sells out super fast.
The Shetland Museum restaurant is excellent. During Up Helly Aa, be sure to make reservations if you would like to eat there!
The Fiery Sessions are concerts organised by Shetland Arts at the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick.
There are two performances on Up Hellya Aa day featuring traditional Shetland fiddle music. Each performance lasts for 2 hours.
Buy your tickets in advance because the Fiery Sessions are very popular and sell out on the day.
Lerwick Town Center
The Lerwick Town center is charming with lots of local stores and cafes. There are some good vintage and antique stores too.
Up Helly Aa Shop Window Competition
Local businesses in Lerwick decorate their store windows for Up Helly Aa in a competition judged each year by the Guizer Jarl. The winner gets a trophy.
The store windows range from the stylish to the silly.
Get into the sprit of Up Helly Aa early some beers from Lerwick Brewery. They even created a special Hazy IPA to commemorate Up Helly Aa 2023.
Practical Information for Up Helly Aa
Considering that the population of Lerwick in Shetland is only about 7000 people, the thousands of visitors that come for Up Helly Aa quickly fills up the destination.
As we found out, accommodation in Lerwick books up far in advance of Up Helly Aa. We stayed at the Shetland Hotel in Lerwick which was right across from the Ferry Terminal.
Taxis and car shares will be hard to get during the night of Up Helly Aa. Most of the locals will be out having a good time as you would expect. The squads have buses lined up driving them from party to party.
You really need to stay in Lerwick to make the most of the festival. Lerwick Hotel was a 20 minute walk to where the Up Hellya torch-lit procession took place.
We knew people who stayed at Busta House Hotel. While a lovely hotel, Busta House Hotel is a 45 minute drive away from Lerwick.
How To Get To Shetland
As an island, you have a choice of getting to Shetland either by plane or by ferry.
Flights to Shetland arrive from the main Scottish cities into the main Shetland Airport at Sumbergh. Sumbergh airport is 40 minutes by car from Lerwick. On our way to Sumbergh Lighthouse, we actually drove across the airport runway!
A longer but easier way to get to Shetland is via an overnight ferry from Aberdeen.
Northlink ferries leave in the afternoon for Shetland and some of them stop in Orkney as well. The return Northlink ferry also leaves in the afternoon for Aberdeen and arrives early in the morning. We opted for a double cabin for the overnight journey which was very comfortable.
Note that the flights (and ferries) can be delayed depending on winter storms in the North Atlantic. We had to cut our Shetland visit short by one day because our ferry was cancelled due to high winds.
Up Helly Aa Festival Tours
There are organised tours that take you to the Up Helly Aa festival from Scotland or England. They tend to be expensive and also organise visits to other parts of Shetland in addition to visiting the Lerwick Up Helly Aa.
We would ordinarily have booked our own way to Up Helly Aa but we left it too late. After the 2 year hiatus because of the global pandemic, Up Helly Aa 2023 was eagerly awaited and everything seemed to sell out fast.
People we met on our tour had the same experience too. Six months before Up Helly Aa itself, accommodation in Lerwick was sold out and the only availability was through Up Helly Aa tours which were holding pre-booked blocks of rooms.
We would not recommend the Up Helly Aa festival tour we took.
They were super disorganised and the only thing of value they provided was our ferry tickets and Lerwick Hotel accommodation. They were also super helpful in rescheduling our ferry tickets when the initially ferry departure from Aberdeen was cancelled due to high winds.
We even rented a car to explore Shetland island on our own just to avoid being stuck on the tour bus.
What To Wear for Up Hell Ya
You will need to dress up warm for the sub-Arctic temperatures of Shetland in January! Not only is the wind biting, Shetland seems to have the ability to change weather patterns at the drop off a hat.
For example, we counted 6 rainbows in Shetland on one day! Even though January is the rainiest month in the Shetlands, the rain comes and goes super fast.
Then it is blue skies and sunny for a period of time until it rains again! On Up Helly Aa day itself, it hailed some of the biggest hail stones I have ever seen.
As a minimum for your winter Shetland trip, you will need a warm hat, gloves, scarf, thermal base layers, a fleece, a waterproof down coat and winter boots. Pack like you are going skiing but without actually intending to go skiing!
Other Things to Do Shetland
While you are in Shetland for Up Helly Aa, you should take the chance to visit some of the other things to do in Shetland. Shetland is absolutely beautiful and we were blown away by the beauty of the landscape.
We went on a mission to locate the famous Shetland Cake Fridges which are cakes for sale in a honesty box system. Other cool things to do are visit the beautiful beaches of St. Ninian’s Isle and visit the famous lighthouse at Sumbergh Head.
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