Up Helly AaViking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly AaViking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Viking descendants form a torchlight procession before sacrificing a longship at the annual Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands. The festival, which began in 1870, celebrates the influence of the Scandinavian Vikings in the Shetland Islands. Shetland and neighbouring island Orkney were ruled by the Norse for about 500 years until they became part of Scotland in 1468.

Up Helly Aa: Shetland’s fire festival in pictures

For all its nods to Shetland’s Norse heritage, Up Helly Aa is a relatively new phenomenon: the first Yule torch procession took place in 1876; the first galley-burning in 1889. ‘This was to replace the much more dangerous tradition of tar-barrelling: setting barrels of tar alight and rolling them down the lanes,’ Peterson explains.

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa is the grandest of all with as many as 1,000 guizers, and the only one that has stuck to the tradition of male-only squads – a subject of fierce, whisky-fuelled debate in the halls. This concoction of flames, performance, historical melodrama and hedonism had been on my bucket list since my Shetland-born husband, Sean, showed me a photo of the burning galley a few years ago.

Shetland has a history of being misunderstood, and the Up Helly Aa committee has a cagey attitude towards the media. Past press reports have lingered over drunkenness or Wicker Man comparisons. They focus on the Viking costumes, when in fact only the ‘jarl squad’ wear traditional clothing. ‘It is just so easy to paint us all as a bunch of drunken Neanderthals,’ Peterson says.

Every year the main guizer, dubbed the ‘jarl’ (an honour requiring a good decade or two’s loyal service on the Up Helly Aa committee), leads proceedings, and the pressure is on every jarl to make his concept for the costumes unique and memorable within the brief. This year, guizer jarl Neil (a 52-year-old engineer) opted for a manga twist on Norse legend, taking inspiration from a cartoon character from the game Viking: Battle for Asgard.

Shetland has never needed the rest of us; and it certainly doesn’t need tourists at Up Helly Aa. Visitors will always be made warmly welcome but on a remote, barren island your commitment is to your own people. With a population of 22,000, it has the feeling of a place where, as Sean puts it, nobody’s really a stranger – and you never know who you will need a favour from.

A common misconception is that Shetland is poor, with zero industry and no real job prospects beyond fishing. While for a long time a lack of opportunity sent vast numbers of the younger generation to the Scottish mainland, America or New Zealand, today Shetland has one of the most robust economies in Scotland, thanks to the Sullom Voe oil terminal, run by BP, which handles about a quarter of Britain’s oil production, and the adjacent Total gas terminal.

I was astonished: why had I never heard of it? ‘We don’t really want people to know,’ he replied with a grin. ‘It’s for us, not for tourists.’

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands

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