Vikings remembered on Shetland

Every January, a Viking galley is ceremonially set ablaze as part of Europe’s largest fire festival, held in Scotland’s most northerly town.

The ceremony, known as Up Helly Aa, takes place in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, on the last Tuesday in January. After a day of marches and processions, in the evening up to 1,000 costumed ‘guizers’ carry flaming torches and drag a wooden ship through the town.

The whole ceremony is tainted with much tradition, and is taken very seriously by the locals.

The Guizer Jarl is the Chief Guizer, the leader of the Jarl Squad who are the Vikings for the day.

The first Up Helly Aa leader was elected by his fellow guizers away back in 1882 and was given the title of Worthy Chief Guizer. His role was increasingly seen as one of substance and importance, so much so that, in 1906, it was decided to purchase a Viking suit of armour and other accoutrements for the chief, and to call him from then onwards, the Guizer Jarl.

The ‘guizers’ are organised in squads and led by ‘Vikings’ carrying axes and shields and wearing winged helmets and sheepskins. When they reach their destination, they hurl their torches into the galley and set it alight. Once the blaze has died down, all the squads file off to local halls where they perform their set pieces, singing special songs or performing a dance routine they have prepared. The festival ends with a big ceilidh (party with song and dance) that goes on late into the night.

Hundreds of people participate in the festival, and it is quite a tribal affair, as you would probably expect from a country that is divided into clans.

The festival and procession is a relatively modern event, dating back to the 1870s, although the inclusion of possible Viking traditions reflects the strong cultural links between Shetland and its neighbouring Scandinavian countries. The islands that make up Shetland are 160km (100 miles) off the north coast of mainland Scotland, and on the same latitude as southern Greenland.

Visitors are welcome to watch the procession and join the post-parade festivities, but only locals who have lived in Shetland for at least five years can take part in the parade. The day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday in Shetland.

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