Lerwick Up Helly Aa

Lerwick Up Helly Aa
Up Helly Aa is a fire festival held in the Shetland region of Scotland in the middle of winter to mark the end of the Yule (Christmas) season. Torchlight processions are held in many towns and villages across the Shetland Islands, but the largest celebration is takes place in the city of Lerwick. The Lerwick Up Helly Aa can involve up to 1000 mummers.

The Up Helly Aa celebration grew out of the tradition of tar barreling which took place during the Yule season. Groups of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges, making mischief. Tar barreling was abolished in the late 19th century and replaced by a torch procession. The first procession on Up Helly Aa day (the last Tuesday of January) was held in 1881. The festival has been an annual occurrence ever since. It was canceled once due to the death of Queen Victoria and went on a hiatus during the First World War and the Second World War.

As we’ve already mentioned above, the Up Helly Aa celebration features mummers, also known as guizers. They are amateur actors dressed up as various characters. The chief guizer of Up Helly Aa is the Guizer Jarl (the Scandinavian form of “earl”). He wears a suit of armor consisting of the breastplate, helmet, belt, shield, dagger, and axe. Each Jarl chooses his own design for his cloak and kirtle and takes the name of a figure from Norse legends.

The Jarl is accompanied by the Jarl Squad made up from 50 to 70 guizers, while other squads participating in the festival range in size from 16 up to maximum 25 participants. Members of the squad have to design and make their own costumes representing the theme of their choice. They also have shields and weapons to match in with the costumes.

Up Helly Aa day features a series of festive events. It kicks off with the marching of the Guizer Jarl and his squad in the morning. The march is followed by a civic reception in the Town Hall. After the reception the Jarl squad visit local schools, hospitals, nursing homes and the Shetland Museum.

But the real highlight of the festival is the torchlight procession. If fact, there are two processions. The Junior Procession features the Junior Guizer Jarl and his squad. It is followed by the Senior Procession. Almost a 1000 torchbearers led by the Guizer Jarl and his squad march along the prescribed route. Each squad participating in the procession chooses a theme and dresses accordingly.

The procession finishes at the galley (a Viking ship made specifically for Up Helly Aa). Guizers sing the traditional song and throw their torches into the galley. Once the galley has burned, they sing another song, and then partying begins.

Lerwick Up Helly Aa

Photo by Ian Ed




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