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I’ve heard about Up Helly Aa, a New Year’s Eve festival that takes place in the Shetland Islands of the UK, but I’ve never been myself. Guest posters Michele and Ron share their experience attending this unique celebration. Words and photos in this post are courtesy of Michele and Ron Legge.
About Up Helly Aa
Every year on the last Tuesday in January the town of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, UK comes alive with flaming torches and Vikings. While Up Helly Aa looks like it has been around for hundreds of years, it is a fairly recent phenomenon and started in the late 19th century. The young men of the town seemed to go a bit stir crazy in winter and would run through the town with burning tar barrels often setting fire to nearby homes. The town decided to focus their energy on something a bit less chaotic, and Up Helly Aa was born.
Every year a local is voted Head Jarl, he selects a squad. From February they are hard at work building a Viking longship, making costumes, and learning what will become their signature song. This is a much sought-after position, and many wait up to 20 years for the privilege.
Other squads of locals are also formed, all making their own costumes. From monkeys to Elvis to drag queens, they have it all covered. They also have to practice their short performance that will be presented to locals and visitors alike throughout that cold January night.
On the day, the Head Jarl posts his proclamation and is the leader of the town for the day. His squad spends the day visiting nursing homes, schools and other public places getting everyone into the spirit for the feature of the event that evening.
At dark, all the street lighting is turned off. The Head Jarl and his squad, drag their longship through the darkened streets. They are followed by the remaining squads carrying flaming torches meandering their way through the town. It really is a sight to behold.
On arriving in a central park, the longship is parked and as the squad arrives their flaming torches are thrown into the ship. The huge bonfire turns one year of work into a pile of ashes.
The next stage is held in community halls across town and is not for the faint-hearted. For the next 10 hours, each squad turns up in rotation, performing their act to entertain the town. The year we went there was a huge variety. Of course, some were about local events and other more international themes. Each venue has a band playing, with everyone joining in doing varied versions of Scottish Country dancing. We found the locals very friendly and happy to welcome you in to enjoy the experience even going out of their way to explain the more local performances.
Everyone eventually staggers home as the sun rises in the east (although we did see some still out the next morning). While it may be an organized event, it has its moments of chaos. When you get large groups of men, all drinking whiskey from the early hours of the day, what more can you expect? From the amazing array of costumes to the procession through a town with flaming torches to the torching of the Viking longship that took them a year to build. Up Helly Aa has a certain edge to it, and it is a night you will never forget.
How to Get There: Lerwick is in the Shetland Islands north of Scotland. You can either fly from a selection of Scottish cities or take the ferry from Aberdeen.
Accommodation: There is a variety of accommodation options, but it is worth booking early as Up Helly Aa is becoming quite popular. Book your hotel in Lerwick here.
Venue Tickets: The parade is free and open to everyone. The venues are mainly private however tickets are available to the Town Hall, but you need to book early contact the Shetland Tourism Office for availability. There are also other fire festivals in the Shetlands around the same time. If you can’t get tickets to Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, it may be worth checking out the others.
About the Authors
Michele and Ron are advocates for good value travel experiences. They spent three years travelling around Europe on a motorcycle and now are based in Perth, Western Australia. You can find them on their blog Legging It Travel, and on Instagram and Facebook.
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Have you been to any unique New Year’s festivals? Share your experience in the comments below.