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Up Helly Aa! A spectacular Viking festival in Shetland

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Leisure, Scotland on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about Shetland customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Up Helly Aa, picture, image, illustration

The Viking longship is aflame during Shetland’s Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, by Andrew Howat

“Sssssh. They’re coming!”

A hush falls on the crowd, muffled in brightly-coloured sweaters, scarves and woolly caps against the night-wind funnelling through the narrow streets.

Everyone leans forward, listening. From a distance comes the sound of singing, the rhythmic crunch of feet on frozen snow, the flicker of smoke and flame.

“They’re coming. They’re coming!”

Suddenly round the corner ‘they’ are there, a strange and awesome sight. Out of the past, into the heart of Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, twenty men come marching, in winged helmets, tunics of gilded scales, cross-gartered hose; flourishing battle-axes, clasping shields, roaring a strange song and turning their eyes upwards to a commanding figure riding in a thirty-foot dragon-headed longship: the Guizer Jarl, Earl of the Steering Oar and their warrior chief.

A thousand years ago they would have struck terror into the hearts of Shetland islanders. Tonight they are greeted with cheers. This is a peaceful invasion, a time for gaiety and fun. It is the last Tuesday in January. It is Up Helly Aa!

The longship rumbles forward on hidden wheels, hauled by panting, red-cheeked men and boys too breathless to join in as the Up Helly Aa song echoes back from the grey-walled shops and houses.

The procession lengthens. Behind the Vikings come squads of fantastic figures in curious costume, marching and counter-marching like well-drilled troops, wielding the blazing torches that throw dancing shadows and flashes of crimson over the dark stone and snowy rooftops. Fireworks arc and sparkle in the sky. A brass band thumps, brays and gurgles and the crowd begins to sing too as the red-black-and-gold galley thunders by. The raven standards, honouring the messengers of Odin, Norse god of war, stream out in the freshening wind as the long procession passes and the onlookers crowd in behind, bellowing the well-known words.

On the fringe of the town as the longship slows to a standstill and the torchbearers form a barricade around it, they scatter. There is a moment’s pause. A high, clear, trumpet call sends out a ripple of excitement. For a second the Guizer Jarl stands poised, ringed in a sea of light, then he swings over the edge of the galley, and the next moment the air is filled with flying torches. Soon the longship is aflame ‘from keelstone to truck.’

To the crackle of flames a final cheer goes up and the crowds begin to move away. But the evening is not over. It has only just begun! Lerwick’s halls, cafes, restaurants and private houses are stuffed with food and drink. Spaces have been cleared for dancing and now doors are being flung open, light spills out on to the snow.

Everyone is welcome everywhere to Shetland’s biggest party of the year, especially the curiously-dressed torch-bearing ‘guizers’ who followed the galley. They will troop from hall to hall, house to house, singing, dancing, acting, reciting, eating and drinking until dawn.

What does it all mean?

The Shetland Islands lie roughly midway between Britain and Scandinavia. The islanders look equally north-eastwards and south-westwards for their history and traditions, too. For centuries after their first war-like invasions the islands belonged to the Norsemen. Then in the 15th century, when Margaret, daughter of Denmark’s king, married Scotland’s James III the islands were part of her dowry; not an outright gift, just a temporary loan. They were never redeemed. Today they are still ‘on loan’ to Scotland and the people who live there still feel the pull of the north. Many have Scandinavian names; a fierce pride in their Viking ancestry. Distance and time have softened the memory of the Norse invaders’ piratical ways. Now, when the Guizer Jarl comes sailing through the Lerwick streets each January, every Shetlander who can be is there to greet him, and claim his ‘rightful inheritance.’

Months before Up Helly Aa the islands hum with preparation. An organising Committee is formed and the Guizer Jarl (really a Master of Revels) is elected. The guizers, or mummers, are formed into squads, anything from a dozen to a score strong, and their costumes chosen. The theme is secret until the last moment and can be anything at all: a period, an idea, a person, even some local jokes. Anything goes; Red Indians, choirboys, pop singers, pirates, outer space, the Cod War, holidays abroad. There is only one rule: once used, neither idea nor costumes can be used again except, of course, by the leading squad of Viking heroes who support the Guizer Jarl.

A new galley too must be built and painted, the fearsome dragon-head fashioned. Torches, sometimes as many as 800, must be made from wood and sacking, and costumes cut and stitched. Throughout the winter, behind closed doors, half the islanders it seems are gluing and painting, hammering and stitching, practising songs and playlets, polishing instruments or writing topical verse. It is a matter of pride that almost all the entertainment for Up Helly Aa is specially written for the day.

The final task is the painting and decorating of the ‘Bill’; a ten-foot board full of jokes against the islanders themselves. People who live on islands usually know one another’s business, and Shetlanders with something to hide dread the morning of Up Helly Aa, when the Bill is posted and the laughter begins. Everyone’s fair game, from the humblest crofter to members of the County Council.

Then, as night falls, the torches are lit, the Guizer Jarl summons his warriors and the crowds fall silent, waiting for the sound of marching feet.

What are they celebrating? A mixture of things. In the distant past their pagan ancestors who lived during the winter in perpetual darkness celebrated the Winter Solstice by feasting, dancing, and burning bonfires. The Scots, and the Shetlanders too, had their own fire-festival. Today it is the Old Year which, in Lerwick, dies in the flames of Up Helly Aa’s longship. And the party which follows, with the guizers going from house to house, has echoes of the Scottish New Year ‘first footings.’ The dancing will be Scottish too: strathspeys, reels, scottisches and waltzes. By morning every squad will have visited every hall and house, sung its songs at each, recited its verses, acted its plays. Everyone will have eaten and drunk himself full, and danced till his feet were weary. Then, as the blackness of the northern night turns grey, the older people totter off to bed to the strains of that most Scottish of all songs, ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ while the young ones go down to the water’s edge, still singing, to watch the sun come up.

Luckily for everyone, the day after Up Helly Aa is a holiday in Lerwick!

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