‘I just danced with Baby Spice!’, I texted my boyfriend back home – and may I add, it was a man dressed as Baby Spice…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are some experiences, that leave you speechless. They are so incredible that long after the moment has passed, you still ask yourself whether this just really happened… Dancing with a man dressed as a Spice Girl is certainly one of them, but even more so was the entire experience of the viking fire festival Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, Shetland. The festival had been on my bucket list for years, but because it is so popular among locals and tourists and I am such a sucker for last minute travel plans, I was not able to secure accommodation in time until this year’s festival, which took place on the last Tuesday of January, as it does every year. Finally, I was meant to go, and after a first taster of last year’s viking squad at the torchlit procession during Hogmanay in Edinburgh, I was stoked to see what the real festival would be like.

Together with my friend Frida, I made my way up north, to the northernmost islands of Scotland – a train and a long ferry ride later, we had arrived in Lerwick, checked into our accommodation and got ready to celebrate the vikings of Shetland!

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The Facts

To give you a better understanding of what Up Helly Aa actually is, what it celebrates and what vikings have to do with all that, lets have a look at some facts:

– Shetland has only been part of Scotland since 1469. Before that the islands belonged to Norway – hence the strong Nordic influence, which is still a big part of local Shetland culture. The rich Viking heritage of the islands is an important aspect of life – so why wouldn’t they dress up like them?!

– The Up Helly Aa torchlit procession has been held in Lerwick since 1876; the first galley was burnt in 1889. Since 1881 there is Up Helly Aa day – every last Tuesday in January. The day after UHA is a public holiday for all Shetlanders. This is a very old tradition and is taken quite seriously.

– Every year there are up to a thousand men participating in the procession with their squads. The man leading them all is called Jarl (jarl being an Old Norse term for nobility) – he and his squad spend all year making their viking costumes and building the galley. The other squads are not dressed as vikings, but wear fancy dress – they are called Guizers, because they are in disguise. To become Jarl, one has be part of the Up Helly Aa committee for at least 15 years, and the order of men to take this position is decided upon long in advance – mainly because they need to start saving up for their costumes, the galley and all sorts of other costs that come with the honour of being the Jarl’s squad.

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– There are ten Up Helly Aa festivals all over Shetland, but the Lerwick one is the biggest and most spectacular one. Just imagine 860 men with torches! However, the rural Up Helly Aa events also allow women into the Guizer squads, with a few even sporting female Jarls – in Lerwick, it’s strictly men.

– After the procession and burning of the galley, the real fun begins, when locals and a few lucky outsiders gather in halls around Lerwick and wait for each Guizer squad to visit theirs. Most halls are on invitation only, but there are a few which have tickets available – but that is very much a mouth-to-mouth information. Each squad prepares an entertaining choreography and performs them in costume. This goes on all night!

 

Now that you know what Up Helly Aa is all about, let’s get down to business – what is it like to participate in the festival?

Two words: Absolutely amazing!

Up Helly Aa, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes-9

The Procession & Burning of the Galley

I have literally never experienced anything as crazy, entertaining and visually impressive as the torchlit procession in Lerwick and the party-night that followed. We kicked the day off at 8.30am watching the viking squad begin their walk through town, on which they sing the Up Helly Aa song, visit local shops and public spaces for meet & greets, and generally create an atmosphere of heightened expectation for what’s to come. It was particularly cool to see the galley being dragged around town – what a challenge.

Later in the evening we were invited to a local warm-up party – our landlord had her family over, and from her porch you got an amazing view onto the burning site (which was weirdly enough, a public playground), and before us the BBC had stood on the same spot to broadcast the event some years ago. Naturally, we felt very lucky about the invitation and the opportunity to get a good overview of the procession. The Guizers lit their torches around 7.15pm and started marching from the town hall, past our porch where they added an impressive turning movement so you could nee up to six lines of torchbearers lined up next to each other. It was really quite a spectacle – and so funny to see the different costumes in anticipation for the planned choreographies later on. At times, every bit of street you could see from our position was taken over by torchbearers – that’s when you really get a feeling of what 860 torches really means. It sounds impressive at first, but it looks even greater when you actually see them.

Up Helly Aa, Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes-12

After a while, the galley was set up at the burning sight and slowly the torchbearers followed, circling around the galley until all men were surrounding it. After some cheers to the Jarl, the Guizers and the people of Lerwick, the men then throw their torches onto the galley – yes, all 860 of them, and yes, the ones in the back have to get them safely over their fellow men’s heads.

The galley burns for quite a while, which was the perfect moment for us to leave the porch to mingle with the thousands of locals and visitors on the street. After some time, the Guizers will leave the burning sites to assemble into their squads and start visiting the halls. This might be your best chance to get a photo with a ‘real’ viking!

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The Halls

The procession itself is a great experience and most visitors stick to that, but to get the full picture of Up Helly Aa, you need to see what’s going on in the halls – so do try to get a ticket. We were lucky enough to score the last two available tickets at one of the bigger halls, the Legion pub – but only with the help of our landlord Gwen, who immediately took things into matter when we arrived the Saturday before the festival. So, thumbs up for private accommodation, because the landlords will be of more help than hotel staff, who is not always local.

After the procession was over, and after a quick changeover of camera equipment and outfits, we found ourselves in the Legion’s hall together with 250 other people – and I’m quite confident that we were the only non-Shetlanders in the room. There was a band, and an incredible majority of women in the crowd – I guess most men are Guizers. We got some drinks and heard the band announce the first squad to enter the room. In came 25 men clearly dressed as Italien chefs, with a carton pizza attached to each of their hands, dancing to an Italian summer tune and waving a sign with an anecdote, we couldn’t get our heads around – we had been warned that many squads will include some islander insider joke in there routines and that we shouldn’t despair if we didn’t get it. Not a bad start. Immediately after though, came already the next squad – and by far our favourite: it was next year’s Jarl and his team of Dirty Dancers. Salsa tunes, men in pink dresses and a risky lift – what more do you want?

In total there were 47 squads and as the night went on, gaps between their performances became suspiciously longer – I wonder why… We lasted until about 3am, which is nothing compared to the party videos that were still posted at 8am in the morning… We actually saw the Jarl squad walk home in full dress the next day at 11pm. At least I got to dance with a ‘real’ Spice Girl, and that has to be worth a mention on my CV! Those islanders know how to party!

Good to Know Before You Go

– Shetland is safe for solo female travellers, but to be honest, Up Helly Aa is best experienced in a group, especially if you want to hit up a hall! The hall festivities are pretty much a local thing, and people celebrate with each other very much like Christmas, so it might be a bit hard to make contact. In general Shetlanders are very friendly and chatty though, which makes them great people to connect to as solo traveller before and after UHA day.

– Shetland is not an independent country, but people are very proud about their own culture and heritage. Most locals prefer to be referred to as Shetlanders, and not Scottish. And please don’t call them English, that’s a different country!

– Plan your trip as soon as possible – especially when it comes to booking accommodation. Shetland is a small tourist destination and places go fast! Look for accommodation the summer before!

– If you plan to stay for more than just UHA day, make sure to rent a car, as public transport in winter is not targeted at tourism, but mainly commuters. Expectedly, traffic isn’t too crazy – but watch out for sheep on the road, and islanders driving a little bit too fast on the roads they know so well.

For some inspiration check out 15 photos that make you want to go to Shetland over on my blog.

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Photos by Kathi Kamleitner; additional photos via Up Helly Aa.

Dislaimer: Our trip to Shetland was supported by Promote Shetland and Visit Scotland, all opinions however are my own.


This is a post by Kathi Kamleitner.

Kathi Kamleitner was a regular contributor at Travelettes from 2013 to 2019. Originally from Vienna, Austria, she packed her backpack to travel the world and lived in Denmark, Iceland and Berlin, before settling in Glasgow, Scotland. Kathi is always preparing her next trip – documenting her every step with her camera, pen and phone.

In 2016, Kathi founded Scotland travel blog WatchMeSee.com to share her love for her new home, hiking in the Scottish Highlands, island hopping and vegan food. Follow her adventures on Instagram @watchmesee!