Honouring our roots: a personal reflection on Up Helly Aa

With the Up Helly Aa season in full swing across Shetland, Selina May Miller from UHI Shetland provides an insight the festivals and what they mean to Shetland communities.

Selina with a member of the Jarl Squad in 2020

As a Shetlander, Up Helly Aa is a huge part of our social calendar. The dark nights brought in by winter are brightened by the lighting of fiery torches, symbolising to many of us the end of winter, the return of lighter evenings and the sun.

Growing up in Lerwick, Lerwick Up Helly Aa was a magical time of year for me. I grew up running around the town on the day of the festival trying to catch a glimpse of the Vikings and then, in the evening, going to the burning site of the galley and watching the replica Viking Longship burn in awe. The festival brings together local Shetland traditions from the Victorian era carried through to the present day.

What is Up Helly Aa?

From January until March, Shetland communities around the isles are alive with Up Helly Aa celebrations. The largest of the celebrations is Lerwick Up Helly Aa which takes place at the start of each year, on the last Tuesday in January. The festival lasts for over 24 hours and attracts thousands of visitors every year. On the Tuesday evening a torchlit procession runs through the streets of Lerwick, led by the Guizer Jarl (head Viking).

Steven Moar, UHI Shetland engineering lecturer

The procession is made up of over 1,000 men and (as of 2023) women, who take part. Those in the procession of flamed torches are named “Guizers” referring to the disguises worn by those taking part. Once the procession has concluded, the guizers throw their burning torches into a replica Viking longship and sing The Norseman’s Home, a local traditional song.

There are many different roles that can be had for someone wishing to take part. I have been lucky to be more involved in Up Helly Aa than most as a hostess at a local hall. Around a dozen local venues open their doors for the evening, allowing for guizers to perform acts, entertaining locals not taking part in the festival and visitors alike.

The evening part of Up Helly Aa is unique. As a hostess, I helped organise a local venue so that squads of guizers could come into our hall and entertain our guests with acts including dancing and singing. Even Wagner from X-Factor was in attendance one year!

Credit: David Gifford

What Up Helly Aa means to us

As someone who has grown up surrounded by Up Helly Aa, it is interesting to try to describe the festival to those who have never experienced it before. However, I will say this. To us Shetlanders, Up Helly Aa is much more than a fire festival with eclectic costumes and Vikings. It honours the roots of where we come from and is a massive part of our culture. Up Helly Aa is instilled in Shetlanders from a young age and we still celebrate decades thereafter.

Up Helly Aa is an experience like no other. I would say to as many folk as possible to come and see it for yourself.

Three cheers!

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