It’s only about 7:00 p.m. but it’s been dark for a few hours already. The wind is ripping through my layers and making my fingers and toes tingle and the rain has soaked through my jeans. But Up Helly Aa is never postponed for weather, and I tell myself that if the local people brave freezing temperatures and torrential rain every year, then I can do it once.
(Our tour guide, Dougie, tells us later that this is the coldest and wettest he’s ever been in all his years of Up Helly Aa-ing. So maybe the locals were just as miserable as I was.)
Despite the weather there are hundreds of people standing outside the Lerwick Town Hall, waiting for something to happen.
Bagpipers get the crowd going in front of Lerwick Town Hall.
My camera is tucked under my jacket and as soon as I hear something that sounds like cannon fire I take it out, ready to shoot. Fireworks light up the gloomy sky and immediately dozens of red flares are lit, stretching as far down the street as I can see through the rain.
The Olympics have nothing on this torch lighting.
Men in both simple and elaborate costumes, ranging from giraffes to mariachis to Jedis, gather around the flares with their diesel-soaked torches. The rain seems to make them a little slower to light, but eventually they’re all burning bright.
At least with all the rain we didn’t have to worry about anybody catching on fire.
Despite the embers flying off of the torches and the bits of cements dropping off of them, my Haggis Adventures group moves closer to the line of 1,000 or so men, enjoying the warmth and photo ops.
Because this isn’t the kind of event where you have to stay behind the barricades. The town of Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands, located more than 100 miles north of mainland Scotland, is home to just about 7,500 people. So this event isn’t being covered by major media outlets. There aren’t any souvenir stands. In fact, no one will try to sell you anything at all.
And unlike the Tomatina or other festivals, there aren’t dozens of tourist buses around town. There’s just the Wild and Sexy yellow Haggis bus, and all the locals our group meets are amazed to hear how far we’ve traveled for this little event of theirs. But to us, it’s massive. And a little magical.
Don’t be scared. Those axes are sharp, but the guys holding them are big teddy bears.
The high school guizers had their procession and mini burning a couple of hours earlier, before the rain started. There aren’t as many of them, but the adult squad of guizers lined the road to cheer them on and sing the Up Helly Aa song. You’ll have it pretty well memorized by the end of the night.
The mini Vikings take their turn.
Their costumes get very inventive.
Once the men begin their procession the bagpipes are in full swing, and I finally understand why they used to take them to battle. They sound both primal and beautiful, a whole army of them urging on the squads as they chant and sing and shout and wave their torches. It becomes strongly emotional, or maybe all the diesel fumes and smoke just got me choked up.
The rain can’t possibly dampen the enthusiasm of the men who have been waiting all year for this night.
To participate in this event, you have to be male (sorry ladies, but Lerwick sticks to its traditions, although other towns who hold Up Helly Aa events have relaxed their rules to include women), and you have to be local. You don’t just show up and grab a torch.
And to be in the Jarl’s squad (the Jarl being the head dude of the whole event, a one-time opportunity to ride on the galley and wear the fancy winged helmet) you have to be very dedicated. Men spend 15 years or more in the squad before they get to become Jarl themselves, and every year they spend thousands of dollars on their outfit and gear, plus all the time and effort into planning the event and building the galley that will be burned.
The guizers pull the Jarl’s galley through the streets before the burning.
So while Up Helly Aa is a one-day event for most people, for the men involved it can represent decades of loyalty, teamwork and dedication.
The procession ends at a playground surrounded by a stone wall. As spectators we stay outside the low wall, which gives everyone a decent view of what happens next.
The guizers circle the large yard, getting closer and closer together as their torches continue to burn, embers being carried off in the wind.
Round and round they go.
You’ve never seen, or smelled, anything like it.
The Jarl leads some cheers and songs, and when he finally steps off the galley it’s time to burn it down. Men throw their torches onto the boat, and even in the rain it doesn’t take long for the flames to grow massive.
Ooh, it’s like the fire absorbed the galley’s dragon spirit and took on its shape.
There’s more singing and shouting as the crowd waits for the mast to fall.
More fireworks light up the sky, in case there wasn’t enough smoke and fire, but it feels like Independence Day and New Year’s and a victory party all rolled into one.
And then it’s done. The boat burns down to a smaller fire and the men rush off for the next phase of the night. Because Up Helly Aa doesn’t end here. Oh no. Now it’s time for you to run back to the hostel (which is just a block away) and put on your party clothes. From 9:00 p.m. to about 8:30 a.m. the 50 squads are on a tight timetable to go around to the various halls and perform the skits they’ve made up for each other.
Make sure you’re wearing your dancing shoes. There’s waltzing and some polka, and Dougie will show you the Boston Two-Step. You haven’t finished Up Helly Aa until you’ve stepped on a few feet and eaten a few late-night sausage rolls.
But we’ll talk more about that later. For now, the waves are rolling on.
We answer it “A-oi!”