How did Viking festival Up Helly Aa begin?

IT is one of the biggest and most famous fire festivals in the world and goes ahead every year – no matter the weather – on the last Tuesday of January.

IT is one of the biggest and most famous fire festivals in the world and goes ahead every year – no matter the weather – on the last Tuesday of January.

Come heavy snow, gales, rain, sleet or even sub-zero conditions, Up Helly Aa in Shetland will see over 1,000 torch-baring guizers parade through the island’s capital of Shetland before setting a Viking Galley ablaze.

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After that, there is one ‘helly’ of a party which continues with dancing across numerous halls throughout Lerwick until the early hours of the next morning.

The massive event, which attracts thousands to Shetland each year – providing a massive tourism boost during the winter – celebrates the traditional end of the Yule period in the islands.

Despite being based on the Viking heritage of the far north, the festival - which kicks off again tomorrow - only originates back to the 1880s.

Trevor Jamieson, of Shetland Museum and Library, said: “The significance of the name UpHelly-Aa has been variously interpreted over the years, but most commentators suggest that the expression owes its modern form to the Old Norse for weekend or holiday being the word Helly, thus Up-Helly-Aa being the end of helly or holidays.

“In its modern form the festival is not all that old with the addition of Galleys and a Viking theme only coming about just over 100 years ago.

“There was a strongly romantic Nordic revival towards the end of the nineteenth century, and it was perhaps unavoidable that the festival would somehow become tied with the Vikings.

“The first galley was burnt in 1889.

“Prior to this, festivities included flaming tarbarrels being dragged through the street accompanied by indiscriminate gunfire.

He added: “Regulation of ‘end of Yule’ celebrations came about in 1874 when the town clerk posted his final warning to the tar-barrellers.

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“Interestingly, an N.B. at the end of the order states that ‘the commissioners have no intention of interfering with out-door harmless amusements.

“Indeed, around the end of the 19th Century, Up-Helly-Aa evolved into a ‘harmless amusement’ and a self-policing event.

“Former tar-barrellers now instigated properly organised routes, rules for conduct and (should the need arise) discipline of participants, and marshals to oversee the procession itself.

“The prevailing spirit of Up-Helly-Aa was and still is one of comradeship, courtesy, conviviality, music, dancing and above all fun.”

The burning of a galley is a ritual that was carried out in ancient times when a chief Viking or Jarl died.

He would be laid out upon a pyre within his own ship and after setting it alight the whole would have been set off to sea to ensure that his soul was carried to Valhalla - or Viking heaven.

Here Father Odin would greet him and thus his final journey

Mr Jamieson said: “Perhaps it is no coincidence that Up-Helly-Aa is always held on a Tuesday, as the Jarl’s duties, going on through the night as they do, means that he will only be able to rest on Odinsday, Wednesday.

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“Up-Helly-Aa day sees the unveiling and inevitable demise of that year’s galley. It is hauled from the galley shed, where it was lovingly constructed during the previous year, and paraded through the town.

“It is left on the pier near the centre of town for most of the day, in order that onlookers can get a chance to admire and photograph what will be a truly unique vessel.

“The same basic pattern is now always followed, but the colours vary from year to year. In the evening it will be towed away to join the torchlit procession on the Town’s Hillhead.

“After that it will meet its end in a fiery climax in the centre of the north King George V playing field.

“She will be the focal point of many hundreds of eyes, for the galley, above all else, symbolises the mysticism and mythology which are essential ingredients of Up-Helly-Aa.”

This year’s Guizar Jarl is Mark Evans, an oil industry storeman from Lerwick. Altogether there will be 54 men and 15 children in his squad, which will include 13 family members, including son Scott.

Only the Guizar Jarl’s squad – made up of family and friends – dress up as Vikings. The remaining hundreds dress up in fancy dress.

The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival, the Guizer Jarl, will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas he’ll represent.

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The Jarl will have been planning, and saving up for, the longest day of his life for 12 years or more, before he dons his raven-winged helmet, grabs axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon.

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, over 1,000 heavily-disguised men form ranks in the darkened streets. They shoulder stout fencing posts, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking.

More than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen halls in rotation. They’re all invited guests at what are still private parties.

At every hall each squad performs its ‘act’, perhaps a skit on local events, a dance display in spectacular costume, or a topical send-up of a popular TV show or pop group.

Every guizer has a duty to dance with at least one of the ladies in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks.

Up to the Second World War Up Helly Aa was overwhelmingly a festival of young working class men - women have never taken part in the procession - and during the depression years the operation was run on a shoestring.

In the winter of 1931-32 there was an unsuccessful move to cancel the festival because of the dire economic situation in the town. At the same time, the Up Helly Aa committee became a self-confident organisation which poked fun at the pompous in the by then long established Up Helly Aa “bill” - sometimes driving their victims to fury.

Since 1949, when the festival resumed after the war, much has changed and much has remained the same.

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The festival has only been cancelled for various historical events, which include:

1901 Death of Queen Victoria

1914 to 1919 First World War

1940 to 1948 Second World War

Their have also been postponements as listed below:

1900 – two weeks due to influenza

1936 – two weeks due to death of George V

1965 – one week due to the death of Winston Churchill

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