If you’re a festival-goer, Scotland will have you spoilt for choice – there seems to be a festival for everyone and everything. However, if you like the sound of something a little bit different, we may have just the thing for you today. Introducing the “Northern Mardi Gras” (as it was dubbed by Shetland.org), get ready to find out more about the Up Helly Aa Viking Festival, the Scottish festival in Shetland that blends fire, Vikings and processions… what more could you wish for?
Up Helly Aa Meaning
If you’re wondering where the name “Up Helly Aa” actually comes from, wonder no more! Although several definitions/interpretations have been put forward, one that we came across surmises that the word “helly” could mean holiday in Old Norse, with the “up” portion referring to the Scottish Language, with up commonly referring to the end of a certain event. Consequently, Up Helly Aa could translate to the “end of the holidays” using this particular interpretation.
As is the case with many historic terminologies however, new definitions may arise as time goes on.
Up Helly Aa Festival
Now on to the festival itself! If you happen to be visiting Lerwick in the Shetland Islands at the start of the year, you may be able to see the main Up Helly Aa Festival play out right before your eyes, as it is usually held on the last Tuesday in January and lasts for an incredible 24 hours. At the time of writing, the most recent festival was held in 2024, with the Up Helly Aa 2024 dates being Tuesday the 30th January.
Although the festival is held annually, there have been some notable dates where, for different reasons, the festival had to be cancelled or postponed. An example of when a cancellation occurred was back in 1901 following the demise of Queen Victoria, and more recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Infectious diseases have also been the cause of the festival being postponed, when influenza delayed the start of Lerwick Up Helly Aa for a couple of weeks. Here’s hoping there are no more requirements for cancellations or postponements in the near future!
There are also other festivals that take place in other areas of Shetland as part of the celebrations, not just the one that takes place in Lerwick, although this is considered to be the main (and biggest) festival that occurs.
Up Helly Aa Fire Festival
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that sometimes the festival is called the “Up Helly Aa Fire Festival”. The reason for this is a torchlit procession through the streets of Lerwick that is a main feature of the festival. It is said around 1000 torches are used for the festival and the burning of the Galley, which is made especially for the festival itself.
The procession begins in the evening, with the start of the celebrations marked by a rocket being fired over the Town Hall of Lerwick. Eventually, the torchlight procession makes its way to the Galley, where the Guizer Jarl will be standing.
Once at the burning site, the torches are then thrown into the Galley whilst a rendition of the Helly Aa song, “The Norseman’s Home” rings out.
The Galley is a Viking longship that plays an important role during Up Helly Aa. The tradition of Galley burning goes back to 1889, with the colour of the Galley the choice of the Guizer Jarl.
Get ready for your mind to be set alight with the Up Helly Aa Fire Festival!
Up Helly Aa Participants
Whether you’re watching, part of the procession or playing a starring role in the proceedings, you’ll be able to find your space at the Up Helly Aa festival!
The most notable participants come in the form of the Guizer Jarl (also sometimes called the Chief Guizer) and their Jarl Squads. The role of the “humble” spectator should also not be underestimated. They are instrumental in keeping up the spirits of the squads as they proceed through the town.
There is also the option for younger members to get involved too. There is a Junior Up Helly Aa festival, which is the perfect stepping stone for children to see what it’s all about and to get involved.
In the past year, the festival has also been modernised. 2023 marked the first time that the Guizer Jarl was able to have squads of all genders – typically, the Jarl Squads would consist of mainly men.
Up Helly Aa Costumes
The costumes on display at the Up Helly Aa Festival are truly spectacular and play a pivotal role in the festival itself. Why? As what the Guizer Jarl chooses to wear becomes a closely guarded secret of the festival. Nobody knows what the clothing choice will be, or the Norse Saga personality that they have chosen to channel. It’s arguably one of the most exciting parts of the festival!
In keeping with the traditions, the Guizer Jarl will then bestow their armour to the next person, and you could expect to see typical Viking items, including a helmet, shield, axe and even a dagger! Impressively, the Guizer Jarl’s clothing has stayed true to the design first seen back in the 1930s – what other fashion can you say has stayed relatively constant for coming up for 100 years?
However, it’s not just the Viking Chief who gets to adorn a fabulous costume. The Jarl’s Squad will also embrace their inner Viking, wearing traditional Viking grab throughout the festival. The squad will make their own costumes, which change every year, along with the shield used – this often means that the design process can take the best part of a year.
Up Helly Aa Exhibition
If you find yourself in Shetland but not during the winter months, all is not lost! You can still take in what the Up Helly Aa Festival has to offer thanks to the Up Helly Aa Exhibition. This is a great way to see for yourself what a Galley actually looks like, as well as look at festival memorabilia including costumes, photos and even some video footage too!
Explore Shetland with Scottish Tours
Whether you’re in the mood to explore the Shetland islands we have two tours that might fit the bill. Our Highlights of Orkney and Shetland tour is a 6 day trip that includes highlights including Jarlshof (in keeping with the Viking theme!), Maeshowe and Skara Brae.
Or maybe our Archaeological Treasures of Orkney and Shetland tour is more your style? The little island of Mousa is ideal for bird enthusiasts, whereas budding historians will relish visiting St Magnus Cathedral, built by Earl Rognvald, a Viking.
Book your Scotland Tour today