On Christmas Eve in 1824 a visiting Methodist missionary wrote in his diary that “the whole town was in an uproar: from 12 o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all night – the street was thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.”
Welcome to Up Helly Aa, Europe’s largest fire festival. Taking place in Shetland in Scotland on the last Tuesday in January, it involves a torchlight procession, the burning of a Viking longship and a ceilidh that lasts late into the night.
By Scottish standards, it is a relatively modern festival. There is some evidence that people in rural Shetland celebrated the 24th day after Christmas as ‘Up Helly Night’, but there is no evidence that their cousins in Lerwick – the main city on the Shetland Islands – did the same. The emergence of Yuletide and New Year festivities in the town seems to post-date the Napoleonic Wars, and as Lerwick grew in size the celebrations became more elaborate.
Sometime around 1840 the participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings: “Sometimes”, as one observer wrote, “there were two tubs fastened to a great raft-like frame knocked together at the Docks, whence the combustibles were generally obtained. Two chains were fastened to the bogie supporting the capacious tub or tar-barrel… eked to these were two strong ropes on which a motley mob, wearing masks for the most part, fastened. A party of about a dozen was told off to stir up the molten contents.”
The main street of Lerwick in the mid-19th century was extremely narrow, and rival groups of tar-barrelers frequently clashed in the middle. The proceedings were therefore dangerous and dirty, and Lerwick’s middle classes often complained about them.
The town council began to appoint special constables every Christmas to control the revellers with only limited success. When the end came for tar-barreling in the early 1870s, it seems to have been because the young Lerwegians themselves had decided it was time for a change.
Around 1870 a group of young men in the town injected a series of new ideas into the proceedings. First they gradually postponed the celebrations until the end of January. Secondly, they introduced a far more elaborate element of disguise –‘guizing’ – into the new festival. And thirdly, they inaugurated a torchlight procession.
At the same time they were toying with the idea of introducing Viking themes to their new festival. The first sign of this new development appearing in 1877, but it was not until the late-1880s that a Viking longship – the ‘galley’ – appeared, and as late as 1906 the ‘Guizer Jarl’, the chief guizer, arrived on the scene. It was not until after the First World War that there was a squad of Vikings, the ‘Guizer Jarl Squad’, in the procession every year.
Today the organisation of Up Helly Aa is voluntary and run by a committee of 17 members elected by the guizers. To become Guizer Jarl – Chief Guizer – a member must serve some 16 years on the committee. The creation of the galley and the making of the 1,000-plus torches is also done by volunteers.
While visitors are welcome as on-lookers to view this spectacular festival, it is very much a local event for local people and participants must have been a resident in Shetland for five years before they can take part in a squad and the procession. However, visitors are warmly welcome in one of the halls that are opened for festivities after the procession - providing they can get their hands on the much-sought-after tickets.