Up Helly Aa – Britian’s best-loved fire festival

The biggest fire festival of the UK calendar, January’s Up Helly Aa has been happening in Lerwick, capital and main port of the Shetland islands, since the late 1800s.

Up Helly Aa 2014 takes place on Tuesday 28 January. The ‘Guizer Jarl’ – the year’s elected chief disguise wearer – dons Viking armour and weapons specially designed in the 1930s and his own choice of kirtle (tunic) and cloak. With his ‘Jarl Squad’ of more than 50 other ‘Vikings’ he spends the day marching and parading ‘the galley’ – a purpose-built Viking longship – through the streets.

The colour of the galley, made by local craftsmen over four months to a 1949 design by local boatbuilder James Smith, (or ‘Boatie Jeemie’), and the corresponding design of the Guizer Jarl’s clothing and coordinating Jarl Squad uniforms, changes every year and is a closely guarded secret inspiring speculation and keen anticipation.

Thousands of spectators cheer as the Jarl Squad joins 45 other ‘guizer’ squads, for the evening’s main event, marching from the back through the middle of the assembled guizers to take the lead with the galley and the Guizer Jarl at its helm. Streetlights are off and the streets shrouded in darkness when nearly a thousand torches are simultaneously lit and the procession sets off for the site where the galley is then burned.

All squads (each about 20 men in their own surprise themed costumes) reassemble and spend the whole night visiting twelve welcoming ‘halls’ by turns. They present a dance routine or other specially rehearsed act for the hall’s community host group, dance with one of the host ladies then leave.

Local shopkeepers join in through January with a themed shop window-dressing competition judged by the Guizer Jarl, and during the summer the shed used to build the galley displays information, photos and costumes from previous years.

But where did this remarkable practice come from? The port’s noisy festivities appear to have been first started by rowdy troops celebrating Christmas after returning from the Napoleonic wars.

In the mid 19th century during advent, burning tar barrels were conveyed by masked figures through the town’s narrow main street on crude carnival floats made from dockyard materials, with clashing float teams creating dangerous chaos.

Around 1870 a group of local intellectuals took charge, inventing the name Up Helly Aa and moving the revels to coincide with ancient rural Shetland’s ‘Up Helly Night’ 24 days after Christmas. Guizing came to the fore while a torchlight procession provided the fire. The Viking theme soon emerged, and by the early 20th century the galley and the Guizer Jarl were established traditions.

This ramshackle celebration by young working-class men of the town would undergo another transformation in 1949 after BBC coverage. With sudden new attention the festival became much bigger and, of necessity, more tightly organised, and now attracts spectators from across the globe.


Thanks to CaptainOates for the pictures in this article

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