Shetland Islands, Part II – Up Helly Aa

On the last Tuesday of January for every year since 1882, Lerwick has held a torchlight procession which from humble beginnings has grown to feature over 1000 Guizers today and is now considered the largest fire festival in Europe. It was this that heavily influenced my trip to Shetland.

After a late lunch I needed to kill some time before the main event in the evening I just happened upon the Shetland museum as the Guizer Jarl and his squad were making a visit.  It was a good chance to get up close with the Jarls and check out their viking costumes and weapons. The Jarl Squad consists of 16-25 Guizers dressed in their viking suits and each year hold a new shield designed to fit the chosen theme. The chosen weapon can vary from axes, swords, spears, daggers, bows and crossbows.

The street lights are turned off leaving the Jarls basking in the rich glow of their torches. The main Jarl squad is followed 45 other squads totaling nearly 1000 Guizers ranging from police, priests and punks to stormtroopers and superheroes plus plenty of cross dressers who are responsible for Up Helly Aa’s “Transvestite Tuesday” nickname.

The procession makes it way through the streets for about a 1km in front of thousands of onlookers before gathering at the burning site where the 1000+ Guizers hurl their torches onto the galley which after taking local craftsmen months to construct goes up in smoke in minutes.

With the galley burnt to a crisp the night is just beginning. All 45 Jarl squads including the Guizer Jarl and his squad make their way to 12 halls which have been set up for a solid evening of merrymaking, singing, drinking, eating and dancing which continues until 8am the next morning which fortunately brings a public holiday.

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