The weather was never going to be on our side. Although the force-11 gale forecast never came true, the locals said they hadn’t had such awful weather in a long time for Up Helly Aa. This is the annual fire festival – the largest in Europe – hosted in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. And this year – in spite of the heavy rain and the frosty blizzard – I was among the thousands that lined up the streets of Lerwick to be part of Up Helly Aa 2013.
What is Up Helly Aa? The festival’s name seems connected with the word ‘Helly’ which in ‘Shetlandese’ means week-end, but also ‘holy’, though it may also be linked to the last day of Christmas celebrations, which would fall 24 days after 5 January:
Historically the 5th of January was Old Yule, and the 24th day following the 5th was the final day of the Yuletide celebrations – a day of fire, feasting and frolic – Up Helly Aa day. It has also been referred to as the “four and twenty day” and “Antimass” or “St. Anthony Day” – all meaning “the whole festival at an end.”(Shetlopedia)
It’s a relatively modern tradition, dating back to the 1840s, when celebrations of the end of Yuletide started to involve the burning of barrels. The Viking theme is an even more recent acquisition (c. 1877), although, of course, the relationship with Norway has been a strong part of Shetland’s history and culture for centuries.
Against all odds, we were lucky with the weather during the day.
Led by Jarl Stevie Grant, and accompanied by the sounds of pipe and brass bands, the squad paraded around Lerwick and ended up on the Alexandra Wharf where the ‘guizers’ lined up on the galley (Krisara was her name, this year) for photographs. This year’s Jarl costumes were blue and silver and as the sun kept popping in and out, the light bounced off spears, axes and helmets. Their ornate designs reminded me of those found in the treasure of St. Ninian’s Isle.
As my friend Bruce often reminded me, although the festival has attracted tourists for some time, it largely remains a local thing. You could certainly read the community spirit in the guizers’ eyes, looking out for thir friends on the streets and taking care of some of the youngest members of the squad… from 4 years of age and going up to 90+, there is no limit, as long as you are male (no women are allowed on any of the squads!), fit enough to carry an axe and, in the evening, a torch for the final procession, leading to the burning of the boat itself.
The evening ceremony involves a larger crowd of guizers. Beside the Jarl’s, 47 ‘alternative’ squads took part in Up Helly Aa this year. Each squad dressed up following the most diverse themes, ranging from Rastafarian to giant Teddy-Bears, cross-dressers and fire-fighters.
There are no words – or pictures – to do this breath-taking spectacle any justice. At 7:30pm exactly, all the street lights go off. This is when you realise, for a few instants, how dark winter nights must have been in the olden days.
Then the magic begins.
Gradually nine hundred torches are lit and, with the smell of paraffin increasingly more pungent in the air, in a matter of minutes the streets are bright again, as the squads begin marching in a circular route along Lower Hillhead, St Olaf Street and King Harald Street. The rain is replaced by a thick shower of orange sparkles. It is like witnessing the end of the world, or being in the middle of a volcanic eruption.
The parade ends in a park in the centre of town, where music, songs and fireworks announce the imminent blaze.
This year, I am told, fewer people turned up to see the burning, no doubt due to the weather. To me, it all added to the drama and, with fewer bodies around, I was able to get closer to the burning site, to watch the body of Krisara slowly being consumed by the flames.
It all happens rather quickly. The guizers throw their torches over onto the galley, which is soon ablaze.
On a night like last Tuesday, the phrase ‘battle of the elements’ couldn’t ring truer. Although the wind and rain threatened to blow off the torches, in the end, the fire was the winner. The storm subsided, allowing the galley to be engulfed in the firy embrace of Up Helly Aa.
After the burning, people found shelter in friends’ houses to reactivate blood circulation with the aid of a dram or two… I have to thank Anne and Robert for my life-saving sip of whisky.
The celebrations continued at the 12 official festival halls where live entertainment, eating, drinking and most importantly ceilidh dancing went on until 8 o’ clock in the morning. There was also a comedy show on at the new theatre-cum-arts-centre, Mareel. The guizers visited each of the hall, performing dance routines and songs inspired by current affairs, popular culture and local business. Some of the acts are exquisitely random; think Snow White Meets Star Wars, Little Britain does James Bond or dancing giraffes… In most cases it worked, in a strange kind of way, and each performance deserved top marks for creativity. After their acts, the guizers invite the spectators to dance with them. I was the only lass in hiking boots and, by far, the worst ceilidh dancer in Islesburgh Hall, but I was welcome to join in.
The day after is a public holiday in Lerwick. Everybody will catch a little sleep before going out again at night, to compare notes and share the gossip.
*A selection of photographs kindly reproduced after publication in New Welsh Review, 102, December 2013.