Feature

Feb 2013

Up Helly Aa - Europe’s biggest fire festival

Originating in the 1880s Up-Helly-Aa in the Shetland town of Lerwick,  has been an annual occurrence for centuries, taking place on the last Tuesday of January every year.  Marking the end of yule, this northern Mardi Gras is a celebration of Shetland history, a triumphant demonstration of the islanders’ spirit and a superb spectacle which his gained worldwide recognition as Europe’s biggest fire festival. 

The event has only been cancelled three years in its long-standing history  for the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and during the First and Second World War, showing Up-Helly-Aa has firmly made its mark as an iconic celebration on the Scottish calendar. 

What’s more, the event was more recently listed as one of only two ‘must-dos’ in British travel publication, Wanderlust’s top ten festivals worldwide.  Up-Helly-Aa was placed forth behind Fiesta de Santo Tomas, Chichicastenango in Guatemala, the Mevlâna Festival in Konya, Turkey, and the Festival in the Desert in Mali, beating events like the Ice and Snow Festival in China, the Fiesta Grande in Chile and the La Tamborrada at San Sebastian in Spain.

So why does a festival on the small, remote island of Shetland draw such international acclaim?

Up-Helly-Aa is a lot more than a sub-arctic bonfire party. The day (and night) long celebration is planned a year in advance by several thousand people and preparations are shrouded in secrecy.  The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival, the 'Guizer Jarl', will wear on the day.  Kitted out in a raven-winged helmet, axe and shield the Jarl leads over 800 men in Viking disguise through the streets of Lerwick with blazing torches before setting fire to a long boat in the city centre.  Needless to say the party doesn’t end there.  In true Scots style, celebrations go on through the night and into the next day with gatherings in halls throughout the town.  Not surprisingly the next day is a public holiday! And, if you still have energy left, join the hardy partygoers for a second evening of dancing known as the ‘Guizer’s hop’.

If you do miss the Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa (or if it gives you the taste for more of the same), there are another eight fire festivals in various districts of Shetland during the late winter.

For more info on Up Helly Aa