Feat of flames for Viking isle
Go Christmas: Shetland’s Mainlanders fight winter gloom with a raucous fire festival, writes Joanna Roberts
I HEARD THE Vikings before I saw them. The sound of marching carried on the wind to where I stood among a group of damp onlookers. The noise grew steadily, punctuated by warlike whoops until, finally, the squad appeared in view. Led by the Guizer Jarl, or chief mummer, 60 bearded men strode towards us with their winged helmets, glinting axes and ornate shields.
A murmur went through the crowd as they craned their necks for a first glimpse of this year’s costume, months in the making and a closely guarded secret. “It’s pink leather!”
This annual parade through Shetland’s main town, Lerwick, is part of Up Helly Aa, a 24-hour party that celebrates the islands’ Viking heritage and lights up the deep, dark winter.
It was introduced in the late 1870s in response to the mischief that occurred each midwinter, including dressing in disguise – or guising – and dragging flaming tar barrels through the streets. The details, such as the colour of the tabards and length of the beards, change from year to year, but the fundamentals remain: squads of men in costume, the burning of a Viking galley and a night of feasting and revelry.
Earlier that morning I had seen the festivities kick off with the posting of the Proclamation at Market Cross. Posing as a running order for the day’s events, the Proclamation is a satirical review of the year in Shetland; it ridicules local figures and thumbs its nose at the authorities. Incomprehensible unless you’re well versed in local politics, it is a reminder that this is predominantly a festival for Shetlanders. Luckily, I had one on hand to translate.
It was evening when the party really started. At 7.30pm, when darkness had fallen, 900 guisers lit their torches. Split into 46 squads, each with a distinct theme, the men paraded two by two through the streets, dragging a replica longship.
Costumes ranged from the traditional to the contemporary, with squads of zombies, leprechauns and bananas joining the Vikings. One man told me that the men’s penchant for dressing up as women has led some to refer to the festival as Transvestite Tuesday.
At the end of the parade was the moment everyone had been waiting for: the ceremonial burning of the galley. The guisers gathered around and, cheering the Guizer Jarl, threw their flaming torches aboard. The fire roared and the crowd whooped.
Vikings arrived in Shetland in the ninth century. The archipelago’s strategic location between Scotland and Norway made it a prime target in territorial battles, and subsequent centuries saw several changes of rule. In 1469 King Christian of Denmark pawned the islands to Scotland as part of his daughter’s dowry; Shetland has remained under Scottish control ever since.
I arrived by sea, enduring a 14-hour ferry journey north from Aberdeen in force-seven winds and pitching waves. I was visiting Mainland, the largest of the 100-island group and one of only 15 that are inhabited. As we docked in Lerwick, the centre of Shetland’s fishing and oil-service industries, I braced myself for the cold to hit. I was pleasantly surprised to find it no colder than Dublin thanks to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream.
Shetland’s landscape is undramatic: mostly undulating moorland that blazes with heather in late summer but is a wintery yellow-brown at this time of year. Instead, the drama is provided by the sea and the enormous sky. The ever-present wind whips clouds across its face, and the weather can change astonishingly fast. Artists have long raved about the light in Shetland, and even I, with my unartistic eye, could appreciate the clarity and preciseness of the view.
Up Helly Aa added the final and most dramatic element to the mix: fire. But once the boat was ablaze the crowd didn’t hang around. Turning their backs on the smoky air, they hurried home to put on their party clothes and begin the long night of merriment.
It is traditional for the guisers to spend the night of Up Helly Aa travelling from party to party, entertaining the guests in return for food and drink. These parties used to be held in people’s homes, but to accommodate growing numbers they have moved to 12 halls around town. You must be invited to attend, and women are expected to take turns serving refreshments.
In an impressive display of logistics, each squad visits each hall, beginning at 9pm and ending at 8am the next day. At about 1am some of the guisers begin to look a little the worse for wear, thanks in part to the whisky and beer provided on the buses transporting them between halls. But the show goes on, and they sing, dance and perform sketches, the acts woven together by a country band that puts on a remarkable music marathon.
Locals pride themselves on being able to make it through to 8am. But I can’t do it. At 4am, when I find myself watching a bunch of leprechauns worship a pint of Guinness while a transvestite dances a reel with my mother, I decide that my Up Helly Aa experience has probably peaked. Pink Vikings or no pink Vikings, it is time to call it a night.
Up Helly Aa takes place on the last Tuesday in January. See uphellyaa.org
Where to stay, eat and go
Where to stay
Lerwick Hotel. 15 South Road, 00-44-1595-692166, shetlandhotels.com/lerwick. The decor may be dated, but the views are second to none. Doubles from £55pp (€62).
Eddlewood. 8 Clairmont Place, 00-44-1595-692772, eddlewood.com. Friendly guest house in the centre of Lerwick. Doubles from £28pp (€32).
Busta House Hotel. Busta, 00-44-1806-522506, bustahouse.com. About 25km northwest of Lerwick, this castle is now a country-house hotel. From £50pp (€56).
Where to eat
Hay’s Dock Café Restaurant. Hay’s Dock, 00-44-1595- 741569, haysdock.co.uk. Located in Shetland Museum Archives, this cafe-restaurant prides itself on serving high-quality local produce. Weather permitting, you can dine on the balcony.
Queen’s Hotel. 24 Commercial Street, 00-44- 1595-692826, kgqhotels.co.uk/ queens.htm. This landmark waterfront restaurant is renowned for its seafood.
Monty’s Bistro. 5 Mounthooly Street, 00-44- 1595-696555. Friendly bistro tucked up a flight of stairs behind the tourist office. Seafood features prominently, and touches such as the rosemary bread served between courses add a homely feel.
Where to go
Shetland Museum Archives. Hay’s Dock, 00-44-1595-695057, shetland-museum.org.uk. This comprehensive museum covers everything from history and folklore to the importance of fishing and textiles.
Sumburgh Head. 00-44- 1950-460800, rspb.org.uk/ sumburghhead. Home to an RSPB reserve where you can see one of the UK’s most accessible colonies of puffins, along with kittiwakes, guillemots and gannets.
Valhalla Brewery. Baltasound, Unst, 00-44-1957- 711658, valhallabrewery.co.uk. The UK’s most northernmost brewery, on Shetland’s northernmost island. Six Shetland ales are brewed here; guided tours can be arranged.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Aberdeen. Northlink Ferries (northlink ferries.co.uk) sails on to Lerwick. Flybe (flybe.com) flies on to Mainland.