It is almost that time of the year, when hundreds of Scottish men dress up as Vikings, carry torches through the black of the night and burn a purpose-build wooden Viking ship in honour of the past, when Shetland was not Scottish yet, but still Scandinavian. Up Helly Aa in Lerwick takes place on the last Tuesday of January and rings in a series of such processions across the Shetland Isles. Last year I fulfilled a life-long dream of mine and went to Shetland to be part of the spectacle, and thought I could tell you everything you need to know about attending Up Helly Aa in Lerwick.
First up, don’t get your hopes up too high – you won’t actually see hundreds of Scotsmen dressed as vikings – but you’ll see hundreds in fancy dress. That’s why they are called Guizers. In Lerwick around 8-900 men participate in the fire procession, split up in squads of 15-50 men, but only the main squad belonging to the Guizer Jarl – the main character of the festival – is dressed up as vikings. Who gets to be the Guizer Jarl and his squad is decided many years in advance and it is a great honour. The men usually save up a lotto of money to pay for their elaborate costumes and the building of the galley.
All the other squads dress in fancy dress – some more elaborately than others – but usually in relation to their group number they will later perform in halls across Lerwick. You see, the fire procession and subsequent burning of the ship are only the beginning of a night of celebration. Locals gather in halls around town all night and squads go from venue to venue to entertain the crowd with a dance or comedy act specifically created for the occasion. Of course there is also lots of booze, so that at some point it doesn’t matter anymore when not every squad makes it to every hall… But let’s start at the beginning!
Start planning early
Up Helly Aa is bigger than Christmas – that’s what a local Shetlander who studies in Glasgow once told me. This means that every spare bed is taken up long in advance, so don’t even think about couch surfing or winging it – you don’t want to dance all night in a hall just because you don’t have a bed to return to…
Shetland is not a mass tourism destination, and hotel beds in Lerwick are scarce. Book your accommodation – I recommend a B&B or holiday apartment like Haakon View – as early as you can. The same counts for your transport to the island and rental car if you stay a couple of extra days. You can fly or take the overnight ferry – which we did seeing that it’s cheaper and more reliable during the winter months. On the ferry we met a couple of Spanish guys traveling to Lerwick rather spontaneously, and they hadn’t had any reservation yet. We didn’t see them again, but I really hope they got on well and found a place to stay!
It’s serious business
While the prospect of dressing up as viking (or the Spice Girls) in order to burn a ship and dance all night, might sound a bit ridiculous to some, Up Helly Aa is serious business. As I said, being named Guizer Jarl or walking in his squad is a great honour, and there are many rules applying to the tradition – such as no girls or women allowed in the ‘army’ of Guizers. There are fire processions in other places around Shetland that are more lenient, but the event in Lerwick is still held in the same tradition as always, and the men who participate are very proud of this.
Know where to park your car
One more piece of practical advice is to know where to park your car if you have one. Many roads in the town centre of Lerwick get closed for the festivities and the last thing you’ll want to worry about is a towed vehicle…
Ask locals to help you out with a hall ticket
Witnessing the procession with its elaborate choreography and the subsequent burning of the galley are just the beginning. The real fun takes place in the halls which open after the ship has been burnt. Many of them are closed venues, operated on invitation-only basis – so unless you are or know a local involved very well, you’re out. There are a few halls for which you can buy tickets though, such as the hall at the Legion pub. Tickets are rare, but not impossible to get. Out landlord from Haakon View helped us organising two tickets for the night, but you can also find them advertised in the local newspapers.
Put on your dancing shoes
We paid around £35 per head to get access to the Legion, and quickly noticed that we were the only non-locals in the hall. 98% of the crowd were women whose boyfriends and husbands were part of the squads. While neither of this made the bonding sesh with locals much easier, it was still a fun night and we held out until 3am dancing with multiple guiders dressed as cats, cowboys, and the mentioned Spice Girls.
Make sure you wear comfortable shoes, particularly if you want to test your skills at some ceilidh dancing!
Relax on the following day
The day after Up Helly Aa is in fact a public holiday on Shetland, and many places will not be open. Be prepared for a very quiet day and either do an easy road trip or simply relax in your cozy apartment!
Plan in some extra time for emergencies (and road trips!)
Two days after Up Helly Aa 2016 a massive storm hit the Shetland Islands, and many travellers got stranded. The unpredictable weather of the north Atlantic means that flights are often delayed or cancelled, and when it get really bad, even the ferry gets cancelled. We were scheduled to leave on Saturday night, and of course – came Friday – the first ferry had to be cancelled. To pass time we went on a little road trip towards Eshaness lighthouse, which we never reached because the storm was so strong we didn’t dare going further than the small town of Brae much further inland. We prayed that the ferry would come back the next day, so we could go home and not miss a day at work.
Lucky for us, the storm seemed to have calmed down again by Saturday afternoon, and we were good to sail off towards mainland Scotland – albeit the sea was so rocky, I needed a couple of seasickness pills to knock me out.
The good thing is that even if you get stuck on Shetland there is plenty to do, even in winter, and if the wind allows the archipelago is your oyster! My favourite trip was by far a day trip to the northernmost tip of the Isle of Unst and a walk in the Hermaness nature reserve.
Read more here: A Quick Guide to Shetland
All in all, attending the Up Helly Aa in Lerwick was an absolutely amazing experience and certainly lived up to my expectations. We only spend a week on Shetland, but its people and beautiful landscape made me fall in love – and certainly wanting to come back one day.
To find out more about Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, check out their website!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.