Every year, the people of the Shetland Islands in Scotland come together to celebrate each other and the area’s Vikinghistory in a festival of fire called Up Helly Aa.
The event has been taking place across various areas in the Shetlands for around the last 150 years, with the biggest of all the festivals taking place in the island’s capital, Lerwick, each January.
It takes months for the festivals to be planned and staged and people come from all around so that they can experience the festival for themselves. Tickets are highly sought after, however, and sell out quickly. While visitors are welcome to see the proceedings, for those who want to take part in it themselves, they must have been a resident in Shetland for five years as it is so important in the local area.
So, what exactly is Up Helly Aa, how is it celebrated, and how can you watch the event from any area of the UK? Here’s what you need to know.
What is Up Helly Aa?
Up Helly Aa means Up Holy Day, and is a celebration of the Viking heritage of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. It is an annual community event, known as a ‘fire’ festival, and as the name suggests it is a huge spectacle of flames but it also highlights the skills of all those who live on the island.
Up Helly Aa involves people dressing in Viking costumes and coming together in squads, known as guizers, to lead a procession through various areas of the community - while carrying torches. The procession ends with the burning of an imitation Viking galley, a specific kind of warship used at the time. After this, the squads visit local halls and then each squad performs an act, which could be singing, dancing or comedy.
The festival is organised annually by a committee, which is made up of volunteers. There is always a main guizer, who is called the guizer jarl or chief guizer, and to be given that role a person must have served 16 years on the committee. There is also a main jarl squad. Beginning in October, volunteers work at least four nights a week to build the galley and make over 1,000 torches to be ready for the big day.
There’s also a junior version of the festival which takes place later on the same day, and is organised by the junior Up Helly Aa committee. This usually begins at around 5.30pm.
When is Up Helly Aa?
There are various Up Helly Aa events held across the Shetland Islands between January and March every year. The largest of all the events is held in Lerwick, Shetland’s capital, on the last Tuesday in January. That means that, in 2023, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa takes place today (Tuesday 31 January).
The day is a long one; beginning at around 8.15am each year when the squads begin marching through the streets of Lerwick and ending more than 13 hours later as the first local hall visit doesn’t usually begin until around 9.15pm. For this reason, the day following Up Helly Aa is a public holiday for most people throughout Shetland to allow people to fully enjoy the festivities.
Every year in Lerwick there is a procession of up to a thousand guizers who march through the streets of the town. The other festivals take part in more rural areas of the Shetlands and are smaller as a result of the lower populations in such places. This year, there are 12 Up Helly Aa festivals in total, also including events in Scalloway, Bressay, Norwick, and South Mainland.
What are the event times for this year’s Up Helly Aa?
The 2023 Up Helly Aa will broadly follow this timetable:
- 8.15am: The squads will leave Lerwick’s Islesburgh Community Centre and march through local streets.
- 9.00am: The squads will march to the Lerwick British Legion branch club.
- 10.30am: The squads will attend a civic reception. Throughout the rest of the morning and early afternoon there are a series of visits to local primary schools, hospitals and retirement homes, with some lunch in between.
- 3.30pm: The squads will visit Shetland Museum.
- 7.30pm: The procession begins.
- 9.15pm: The squads will begin the first hall visit of the evening.
The event website has more information regarding the timetable.
What is the history of Up Helly Aa?
The 2023 Up Helly Aa is the first one to take place since 2020, as the event was prevented from happening for the last two years due to coronavirus.
Up Helly Aa appears to be a relatively modern festival. According to official information released by the Up Helly Aa committee, there is some evidence that people in rural Shetland celebrated the 24th day after Christmas as Up Helly Night, but there is no evidence to suggest that people in Lerwick did the same. It is believed, however, that the event has its origins in the mid-19th century. In around 1870, it is thought that the name Up Helly Aa was thought of and celebrations were moved to the end of January. At the same time, the concept of dressing in disguise - or guising - was introduced, as was the torchlit procession and the Viking theme.
This 2023 Up Helly Aa is also historic because it is the first time that women have been allowed to be guizers in the squads. This is because traditionally the guizers have always been male, particularly during the main festival in Lerwick. There will, however, be no female guizers in the main jarl squad as the members of the jarl squad had already been chosen in 2020 ahead of the planned 2021 event, but this had to be cancelled due to the pandemic so the members of this group have had to wait two years for their day.
The decision to allow women to participate was taken by the Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee in June 2022, when deciding how to bring the festival back after a two year absence. For that reason, it is expected that women will be made part of the jarl squad in future years.
How can I watch the livestream of the 2023 Up Helly Aa?
For those who are not in Lerwick but would like to see the day’s events, it is possible to watch the Up Helly Aa procession online, from 7pm on Tuesday 31 January on an Up Helly Aa video website.