The festival “Up Hella Aa” takes place every January in Lerwick on the Shetland Islands, which lie in the middle of the North Sea around 400 miles from Edinburgh.The Shetlands are closer Norway than mainland Scotland and their residents are fiercely proud of their Norse heritage. Some 60 vikings will parade on Tuesday through Lerwick, Shetland’s biggest settlement, trailed by around 1,000 torchbearers known as “guizers” – dressed in eclectic costumes, from superheroes to pop bands – who will end their procession by throwing their torches into the replica longship.
Every year, an experienced viking is appointed to lead the parade and becomes known as Guizer Jarl, from the old norse word for “chief”. Lyall Gair, 37, from the nearby town of Quarff, has been preparing to become this year’s Guizer Jarl for 15 years. “Everything is pretty personal, from the suit design to the way you want your galley finished,” he told. “It all ties into a saga and the history of the vikings,” he said.
A team of volunteers has been working on the construction of the wooden, dragon-shaped longship since October. “We work two nights a week, averaging about four hours a week, and on Up Hella Aa it is sent to Valhalla,” Gair said in reference to the vast hall ruled by the god Odin, where slain fighters were said in Norse mythology to travel upon their death. “Obviously it’s a little bit emotional, but it’s the end of a journey.”
The tradition of Up Hella Aa is only around a century old, but its roots stretch back much further. Dr Ian Tait, curator of the Shetland Museum, told: “Around the year 800 outgoing Scandinavians, who we now call the vikings, left in search of land, treasure and adventure. “The first place they reached was Shetland and the island became an entirely Scandinavian society. “In 1469 Shetland was pawned by the Kingdom of Denmark to Scotland in lieu of payment for a dowry for a dynastic marriage, but when Denmark finally raised the money Scotland reneged on the deal,” Tait explained. “After a few centuries Denmark gave up its claim and Shetland became part of Britain.”
Following the Napoleonic wars, rowdy veterans returned to Shetland and began holding all-night parties around bonfires of burning tar barrels. In the late 19th century Shetland authorities formalised the event, taking inspiration from the Scandinavian mythology and sagas which were popular throughout northern Europe at the time. Tait added: “Here in Lerwick it was the perfect amalgamation of forces – the growth of an urban centre, young men with spare time and disposable income, and the Scandinavian imagery.” Daniel Kim, 34, a physician, travelled 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometres) from Houston, Texas, to witness Up Helly Aa. “It’s very unique, it’s very remote – it’s something that you don’t see on TV a lot,” he told. “It’s just completely different and outside our norm.”