In pictures: Vikings set Scottish island ablaze with Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa, one of the most dramatic fire festivals in the world, takes place every January in Lerwick on the Shetland Islands.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 9:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 9:46pm

Up Helly Aa, one of the most dramatic fire festivals in the world, takes place every January in Lerwick on the Shetland Islands, which lie in the middle of the North Sea around 640 kilometres from Edinburgh.

The Shetlands are closer to Norway than mainland Scotland and their residents are fiercely proud of their Norse heritage.

Some 60 ‘Vikings’ paraded on January 31 through Lerwick, Shetland’s biggest settlement, trailed by around 1,000 torchbearers known as ‘guizers’ - dressed in eclectic costumes, from superheroes to pop bands.

The procession ended with Vikings throwing their torches into the replica longship. Vikings, guizers and spectators braved torrential rain and high winds to witness the spectacle - but the residents are used to the harsh conditions in one of the most remote and exposed places in Europe.

Every year, an experienced Viking is appointed to lead the parade and becomes known as Guizer Jarl, from the old Norse word for ‘chief’.

Lyall Gair, 37, from the nearby town of Quarff, has been preparing to become this year’s Guizer Jarl for 15 years. “Everything is pretty personal, from the suit design to the way you want your galley finished,” he said.

A team of volunteers has been working on the construction of the wooden, dragon-shaped longship since October.

“We work two nights a week, averaging about four hours a week, and on Up Helly Aa it is sent to Valhalla,” Gair said in reference to the vast hall ruled by the god Odin, where slain fighters were said in Norse mythology to travel upon their death.

The tradition of Up Helly Aa is only around a century old, but its roots stretch back much further.

Ian Tait, curator of the Shetland Museum, said: “Around the year 800 outgoing Scandinavians, who we now call the Vikings, left in search of land, treasure and adventure. The first place they reached was Shetland and the island became an entirely Scandinavian society.”

Following the Napoleonic wars, rowdy veterans returned to Shetland and began holding all-night parties around bonfires of burning tar barrels.

In the late 19th century Shetland authorities formalised the event, taking inspiration from the Scandinavian mythology and sagas, which were popular throughout northern Europe at the time.

Daniel Kim, a physician, travelled from Houston, Texas, to witness Up Helly Aa. Wearing a fake Viking beard and woolly horned helmet, he said: “It’s very unique; it’s very remote - it’s something that you don’t see on TV a lot.