This blog post was updated on March 7, 2023.
If the gloom of January tends to sink into your calendar each and every year, you might want to schedule a visit to Scotland to cure those post holiday blues. Way up north where the country becomes a jumble of islands, you will find plenty of shields, sheepskins, helmets and lighted torches during the last week of the month for the Up Helly Aa Festival. This Viking themed event features a band of Viking warriors called the Jarl Squad, carrying torches through the streets of Lerwick, all to light a boat on fire and party the night away in the process. If this sounds like the right amount of crazy to bring you out of your January funk, here’s the lowdown on this very unique celebration.
What Is It?: To describe the Up Helly Aa Festival most simply is not entirely easy. Largely this wacky event involves men donning Viking garb, marching through the streets of Lerwick with lighted torches. The procession launched from the Lerwick Town Hall heads to a Viking long ship where it is then set on fire, making it the largest fire festival in Europe. Such revelry leads to an all-nighter, appropriately followed by a public holiday. Large halls open their doors throughout town to entertain the participants, called guizers, and also the many visitors coming to town for the event. The torchlight procession consists of nearly 1,000 guizers. For added effect, the town streetlights are switched off to give a truly Middle Ages feel to the town.
How Did It Begin?: An outsider might believe the Up Helly Aa Festival to be an old Viking ritual. However, its origins have very little to do with the Vikings who once occupied the area. The wild night in January was born out of on-goings in Lerwick around the end of the year in the 1820s. New Year festivities occurred when soldiers and sailors came home with their raucous behaviors and penchant for firearms. By the end of the 19th century, a group of intellectuals introduced a Viking theme to the event and moved Up Helly Aa to the end of January.
When and Where?: The Up Helly Aa Festival takes place on the last Tuesday of January in the town of Lerwick in Shetland. This northernmost corner of Scotland hosts the event at the start of a new year for one day and one night. The Up Helly Aa Festival has never been postponed for weather and it has only ever been canceled for the death of Queen Victoria and during World War I and World War II.
Who is the Guizer Jarl?: You can’t attend the Up Helly Aa Festival without hearing or seeing the Guizer Jarl. This chosen one is selected from a committee to lead the procession of other Vikings in the festival. His dress is usually kept a secret until the big day. The first Guizer Jarl was introduced to the event in 1882.
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