Up Helly Aa: Shetland's fire festivals

Article published on Feb. 24, 2014
Article published on Feb. 24, 2014

A horde of fur-clad Vikings clutching flaming torches proceed steadily through the starless night. They do not shrink against the cold, nor flinch as a fierce cross wind threatens to extinguish the fire. Instead, they sing lustily - of heroes, dragons and bygone battles. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported into an older, wilder time. Yet this is 2014 – at Shetland’s Up Helly Aa

It is in fact one of many Up Helly Aa fire fes­ti­vals in the Shet­land Isles, Britain’s fur­thest re­moved is­land group. While Shet­land’s cap­i­tal town Ler­wick hosts the largest Up Helly Aa – and the one which at­tracts the most tourists – other such fes­ti­vals are dot­ted around the isles, with charms and idio­syn­crasies of their own. I trav­elled up with my boyfriend and a friend to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Shet­land, and more par­tic­u­larly North­mavine Up Helly Aa.

North­mavine, the most northerly dis­trict of Shet­land’s main­land, is as iso­lated, beau­ti­ful, and windswept as one could imag­ine the Scot­tish isles to be. It is home to the fa­mous Es­haness cliffs – lit­er­ally breath­tak­ing, as the wind whips all words and ex­cla­ma­tions into the air. The local vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties take it in turns to host ‘soup and sweets’ events in the far-flung vil­lage halls – and, come Up Helly Aa time, to good-na­turedly cel­e­brate the quirks and fol­lies of their neigh­bours. The ‘Procla­ma­tion’ calls the guiz­ers – those who dress up and take part in the pro­ces­sion – to ‘as­sem­ble soberly’ at Hill­swick’s vil­lage hall, be­fore de­tail­ing in verse the var­i­ous amus­ing ex­ploits of lo­cals through­out the year:

‘Da plumber he left Tirvis­ter

dan fell doon on his luck

O man, o man, he ditched da van

Thank god for da fork-lift truck’

We stopped to ad­mire the Procla­ma­tion and the colour­ful Viking gal­ley on Fri­day morn­ing, know­ing the boat would meet a fiery end on the water later that day. Local crafts­men spend months cre­at­ing the gal­leys each year for the fes­ti­val, only to watch them set fu­ri­ously ablaze. It’s an in­cred­i­ble ef­fort and makes the cer­e­mony all the more pow­er­ful. This year’s dragon-headed boat sported a rak­ish mous­tache that hinted at play­ful­ness.

We joined the guiz­ers at Hill­swick hall in the evening, after pil­ing on lay­ers of wool that later that night would dic­tate the longest and least arous­ing strip tease ever seen. It was blow­ing a gale so in the lee of the hall we waited for the Vikings to emerge, the torches to be lit, and the pro­ces­sion to begin. A voice from within – and out spilled hun­dreds of Viking war­riors, fol­lowed by a brass band, peo­ple dressed in boiler suits, some­one dressed as a chicken. Un­like the Ler­wick Up Helly Aa, which is some­thing of a mens-only club, North­mavine wel­comes both male and fe­male guiz­ers. It does not seem that many of these Vikings heeded the Procla­ma­tion’s dic­tates to as­sem­ble ‘soberly’ – yet the al­co­hol, per­haps, kept off the chill. And it was cold. As they lit the torches the glow from the flames re­vealed the shad­ows and con­tours of faces below winged sil­ver hel­mets. Fire is com­pelling, dan­ger­ous, life-giv­ing. I was re­minded of Dylan Thomas’ ‘wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight/ and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way’. Then, with a laugh or a joke from a guizer, the image broke. A red flare streaked across the sky to the North and, led by the dragon gal­ley, the peo­ple began their mile-long pro­ces­sion along the coast­line down to the sea.

Of course, at this point, you might be won­der­ing whether Shet­landers have ever heard of 'Health and Safety'. No po­lice, no fire en­gine, no cor­dons, a whole horde of (pos­si­bly ine­bri­ated) peo­ple with fire whose end-goal is to burn a boat on the sea – what could go wrong?  Over the years, not much, one local told me. One year the top fell off some­one’s torch, and then a po­lice car parked on top of the fire. What hap­pened? I asked. Some­body told them, he replied, some­what rue­fully – not out of mal­ice but the love of a good story. On Fri­day, there was no fear of any­thing set­ting alight, the ground drenched after weeks of rain. In­deed, for a while we weren’t even sure the boat would go ablaze, as hor­i­zon­tal wind quenched the fire’s at­tempt to set the mast aflame. We weath­ered the gale sto­ically, guizer and spec­ta­tor, until 15 min­utes later, as if fi­nally ca­pit­u­lat­ing, the list­ing mast caught fire. Guy Fawkes has noth­ing on this.    

‘From grand old Viking cen­turies Up Helly Aa has come

So light the torch and form the march and sound the rolling drum!’