“ Britain's biggest fire festival and torchlight procession takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday every January. Over 900 colourfully dressed guisers follow the Jarl's squad of Vikings and their longship through the darkened streets of the town to th „
Lerwicks' annual Viking festival - Seen as it’s nearly here again I thought it might be an idea to knock together a few words about what goes on in Lerwick, Shetland on the last Tuesday of January every year. It’s called Up-Helly-Aa and it's one hell of a party. The basics of it are something like this. 900 or so men of the town get dressed up, have a procession, burn a Viking longship then visit various halls in the town to perform entertainments for the amusement of all. They carouse with the womenfolk and indulge themselves with food and drink until well past dawn, which is quite late in the morning this far north. But it’s not quite that simple… The History Up-Helly-Aa, although steeped in Viking myth, is a fairly modern occurrence. There are a few records that suggest it’s been going on in some form for at least 180 years. Back then though it was more of a free for all without any of burning etc. but with plenty of mayhem. It was primarily a celebration of the old Christmas. Around about 1850 the burning of tar barrels was introduced, which would have been something of a riot in the winding lanes of Lerwick. Towards the end of the 19th century the torchlight procession and guising (Dressing up and wearing masks) were introduced, and the festival began to take on some of its Viking attributes, such as the galley. The idea of the Guizer Jarl (The chief of the guizers) was introduced at the turn of the century and following WW1 he had his own squad (The guizers are divided into groups called squads) of Vikings to lead in the procession. The modern, post war festival has evolved into a precisely timed and highly organised event that attracts people from all over the world. The Guizer Jarl and the Jarl Squad Being in the Jarl Squad is something of a commitment, not to say an honour. Each Jarl is chosen by a mass meeting of guizers 15 years before his turn, to give him ti
me to prepare and earn his place. This means he spends 15 years on the committee helping to organise the Up-Helly-Aa’s preceding his own. His squad will usually consist of the squad he goes out with normally each year, plus his close friends and family. They will number in the region of 50, and for the 50 it’s a big year. Jarl Squads may find themselves visiting the mainland several times in the year and going to Norway or other countries to parade themselves. As a result they have to have the 15 years warning just to save up. The carefully crafted Viking costumes, weaponry and armour cost over £1000 alone. Another duty of the Jarl Squad is its charitable functions. The Jarl Squad also has its Bill. The Bill is a declaration of who they are and what they’re about. It usually contains a good deal of fun making of the local notaries too. The Galley One of the Jarl Squads duties is to build its own Viking Longship, known as The Galley. This will be an ornate piece of work, finely crafted and painted, being over 30 feet in length. The Jarl Squad displays it in the town on the day of the festival, then it takes pride of place in the procession. At the end of the procession it’s surrounded by the 900 guizers. They sing traditional songs, such as the Galley Song, then throw their blazing torches onto the Galley, an amazing sight to see. The Squads The remaining guizers are divided into squads. There are usually around 50 squads that are allowed up to 24 members each. To be allowed into a squad you’re supposed to comply with a basic rule of having lived in Lerwick for at least 5 years. This is followed fairly rigorously and several country dwellers have been ejected in the past. The squads’ dress up following the theme of their act, which they perform in the various halls visited over the course of the night. These acts may consist of ridiculing local bigwigs, putting a humorous twist on lo
cal or national events. Ridiculing pop songs and dressing up as women are also favourites. At this point I should mention that the festival is known amongst many locals as Transvestite Tuesday. Some squads are very musically oriented, most at least have a troupe of musicians to accompany them during their acts. Other squads have very clever acts that revolve around tricks and props, and there is always a couple who no one can fathom out, as they’re either completely disorganised, or completely drunk! The Halls The Halls are where the women, visitors and a few brave men hang out. The squads are exclusively a male prerogative, which may sound sexist, but the numbers of women who would want to be involved could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Many of the women organise the food and drink in the halls, others are there for the dancing and the entertainment of the men – Sounds unbelievable, it’s true though! There are 13 halls, all of which must be visited by each squad (On pains of severe reprimand). They include several local schools (Wednesday’s a public holiday), the Sports Centre, The Territorial Army Base at the fort, the Shetland Hotel and the Ferry Terminal. The Squads move between venues in buses or lorries, laden with drink and props. When they arrive at a hall they queue to perform their acts, then dance with the women. They then might be invited to one of the small rooms for a dram with some of the women (Drinking’s forbidden in the main area of each hall). This continues through the night, with all sorts of hanky-panky going on in between. Allegedly there’s been many an Up-Helly-Aa baby born as a result. As the morning wears on the guisers drift off for some breakfast, with many continuing the festivities into the afternoon. Well that kind of sums up Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa. If you like a full scale party it’s worth a trip north. There’s more party
ing the following night at the various “hops” around the town if you’re still able. Lerwick isn’t the only Up-Helly-Aa festival, but it’s the biggest and it certainly can be a most entertaining night out. In March is the Brae Up-Helly-Aa, there are 6 halls involved and around 500 guizers, of both sexes. There are several others of varying sizes throughout the first 3 months of the year. If you want to know any more drop me a line and I’ll help you out anyway I can.