By Jo Finzi
If you’re feeling a bit chilly, why not visit Lerwick for the “Up Helly Aa” on 30th January? It’s Britain’s most magnificent fire festival, featuring the burning of a Viking galley.
There’s also a fiery torch-lit parade, with nearly 1,000 people dressed either as Vikings or in all manner of crazy fancy-dress costumes. After the galley has been burnt, there is a series of performances and a big ceilidh (party), which goes on late into the night.
The Up Helly Aa is a great Shetland tradition, which helps pass the time in those long winter nights. It started as a tar-barrel-dragging contest on the 24th day of Yule, but when tar barrels were banned in Lerwick in the 1870s the locals devised other ways of entertainment.
They finally came up with the idea of a Viking procession with torches and setting a Viking boat alight. It’s said by some to hark back to an ancient Viking practice of burning a galley as a sacrifice to the sun. But whatever the reason, this spectacular event now takes place on the last Tuesday in January - attended by visitors from all over Scotland, and anyone else who’s a self confessed pyromaniac.
The proceedings begin in the early evening when parade members known as “guizers” assemble in squads in the town centre at Hillhead. Every year, one man is chosen as the “jarl”, whose job is to head up the procession dressed as a fearsome looking Viking warrior. He wears a tunic and a Viking helmet with horns and carries a sword and shield emblazoned with Viking designs.
The guizers set off, torches aflame, dragging an enormous Viking galley which has been specially constructed for the festival. When they reach the burning site, all the paraders fling their flaming torches into the galley, which goes up in a tremendous blaze.
Once the blaze has died down, all the squads file off to visit the 11 local halls where they perform their special songs, sketches or dance routines. It takes a few hours to cover all the different venues, and between performances there’s dancing to a ceilidh band and plenty of local lubrication to keep the chills at bay.
The next morning, blow the cobwebs away with a stroll to the Peerie Shop Cafe, behind the Peerie shop on the Esplanade.
Read what the critics say at http://www.peerieshopcafe.com/pages/quotes.html
For more information on Lerwick and the Shetland Isles, go to http://www.visitshetland.com