Last week I wrote about the madness and magic of Up Helly Aa, including the parade and burning of the galley. But there’s more to the five-day journey than just that, and Haggis Adventures makes sure your days are packed.
Your adventure starts in Edinburgh, where hopefully you’ve planned to spend a few days before your after your tour. It’s fantastic.See?
Even grey and cloudy, I really love Edinburgh.
From there the wild and sexy yellow bus heads north to Aberdeen to catch the Shetland Islands, but not before you have a stop for lunch/gelato and, if you’re lucky… see the statue of legendary accordion player Jimmy Shand. I know, it’s a lot to hope for. I’m not even going to post a photo of it because I don’t want you to get overexcited.
But you also get to see Dunnottar Castle, where there are no otters. Sorry.
Once in Aberdeen you get onto the ferry that will take you to Lerwick, capital of the Shetlands. The ferry is big and has a restaurant and bar, and you get to sleep in a cabin so don’t worry about bringing your sleeping bag to camp out on the floor.
And best of all? All the musicians who perform at the Up Helly Aa venues will be on the ferry, so it’s party time with some accordions! (Are you getting that this trip has a musical theme? Because it totally does.)
You might not be into accordions now, but after a while, you start to love it.
Turns out, 16 hours on a ferry passes way faster than you think it will, mostly, and now you’re in Up Helly Aa central. This is where things get really good. (“Better than an all night accordion party?” you’re wondering. Yes. Better than even that.)
The reason why Haggis is the only tour company to do Up Helly Aa, is because they are the only company that has Dougie, your tour leader. They don’t just sit in their Edinburgh offices and call around to figure out what to do with tourists, they already know, because Dougie has been going to Up Helly Aa for freaking years.
See? Dougie (on the left) is in tight with these Viking guys.
He knows the Viking guys. He knows the best pubs to go to. He knows which castles and ruins are the best to see. He knows what time you need to be in each place to make sure you don’t miss anything. So, because of Dougie, you might get to check out the Viking hangout place – the Up Helly Aa shed where the men are making their final preparations.
It’s too pretty to burn!
They’re putting the final touches on the galley and loading up the 1,000 torches that need to be soaked in diesel for the parade:
The torches, ready for action the day before the burning.
And you get to have a look at their inner sanctum.
Even 100 years ago these guys couldn’t stop smiling. Being a Viking must be fun.
Inner sanctum! The Masons would never allow this, which is why Vikings are so much cooler.
But there’s a lot more to see than just Vikings and torches, so Dougie (and his fantastic co-leader Don, who was having his first Up Helly Aa experience) made sure we saw more of the Islands. Because neither wind nor hail nor sleet will slow down the Haggis bus!
St. Ninian’s Isle
On Up Helly Aa day, you start early to make sure you don’t miss any of the action. The guizers start early too, but they probably have more whiskey than you, and they’ve got way better outfits. No wonder they’re so smiley.
These kids must love Up Helly Aa even more than Halloween.
The whole town comes out for the morning procession. They may as well since it’s a local holiday; schools and most shops are closed.
And nothing is locked up behind fences or guarded by big guys and velvet ropes. Walk right up and say “hello” and ask if you can try on a helmet or hold an axe. I think everyone in our group has at least one photo like this:
Who knew Vikings were so good about sharing?
It’s 24 hours of running around, celebrating, listening to the best live music, meeting lots of friendly locals, taking tons of photos, and maybe stroking a few beards:
What lady doesn’t love a bearded man?
Once the burning is all done it’s time for the overnight party. They take place around Lerwick and most are invitation-only. Luckily, Dougie knows the guy with the invites.
This is the only decent photo I have from the night, but that’s probably ok. I wouldn’t want to reveal too much, because you really have to go and experience it for yourself. It’s just… crazy. And completely unique. There were giraffe costumes.
I don’t even remember taking this.
Next morning, whether you’ve slept or not, Dougie puts on a big breakfast. Yum.
Cereal, fruit, haggis. All the breakfast basics are here.
And then there’s a little time left for more sightseeing before you grab the ferry back to the mainland.
The money shot. Scotland should always look like this.
Rain, rain, go away.
Can’t leave the Shetlands without seeing some Shetland ponies, right?
Just make sure that when you feed them carrots, they don’t try to feed on you, too.
Aww. Pony slobber.
And then it’s 16 more hours of awesomeness on the ferry! Although without the accordions this time, because those guys are tuckered out. Or maybe they’re still in Lerwick, drinking.
By the time you’re back in Edinburgh, you’re exhausted. And probably still a little damp. But you can’t stop thinking about going back. How many days until Up Helly Aa 2014?