Up Helly Aa: Shetland's fire festivals
A horde of fur-clad Vikings clutching flaming torches proceed steadily through the starless night. They do not shrink against the cold, nor flinch as a fierce cross wind threatens to extinguish the fire. Instead, they sing lustily - of heroes, dragons and bygone battles. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported into an older, wilder time. Yet this is 2014 – at Shetland’s Up Helly Aa
It is in fact one of many Up Helly Aa fire festivals in the Shetland Isles, Britain’s furthest removed island group. While Shetland’s capital town Lerwick hosts the largest Up Helly Aa – and the one which attracts the most tourists – other such festivals are dotted around the isles, with charms and idiosyncrasies of their own. I travelled up with my boyfriend and a friend to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Shetland, and more particularly Northmavine Up Helly Aa.
Northmavine, the most northerly district of Shetland’s mainland, is as isolated, beautiful, and windswept as one could imagine the Scottish isles to be. It is home to the famous Eshaness cliffs – literally breathtaking, as the wind whips all words and exclamations into the air. The local village communities take it in turns to host ‘soup and sweets’ events in the far-flung village halls – and, come Up Helly Aa time, to good-naturedly celebrate the quirks and follies of their neighbours. The ‘Proclamation’ calls the guizers – those who dress up and take part in the procession – to ‘assemble soberly’ at Hillswick’s village hall, before detailing in verse the various amusing exploits of locals throughout the year:
‘Da plumber he left Tirvister
dan fell doon on his luck
O man, o man, he ditched da van
Thank god for da fork-lift truck’
We stopped to admire the Proclamation and the colourful Viking galley on Friday morning, knowing the boat would meet a fiery end on the water later that day. Local craftsmen spend months creating the galleys each year for the festival, only to watch them set furiously ablaze. It’s an incredible effort and makes the ceremony all the more powerful. This year’s dragon-headed boat sported a rakish moustache that hinted at playfulness.
We joined the guizers at Hillswick hall in the evening, after piling on layers of wool that later that night would dictate the longest and least arousing strip tease ever seen. It was blowing a gale so in the lee of the hall we waited for the Vikings to emerge, the torches to be lit, and the procession to begin. A voice from within – and out spilled hundreds of Viking warriors, followed by a brass band, people dressed in boiler suits, someone dressed as a chicken. Unlike the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, which is something of a mens-only club, Northmavine welcomes both male and female guizers. It does not seem that many of these Vikings heeded the Proclamation’s dictates to assemble ‘soberly’ – yet the alcohol, perhaps, kept off the chill. And it was cold. As they lit the torches the glow from the flames revealed the shadows and contours of faces below winged silver helmets. Fire is compelling, dangerous, life-giving. I was reminded of Dylan Thomas’ ‘wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight/ and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way’. Then, with a laugh or a joke from a guizer, the image broke. A red flare streaked across the sky to the North and, led by the dragon galley, the people began their mile-long procession along the coastline down to the sea.
Of course, at this point, you might be wondering whether Shetlanders have ever heard of 'Health and Safety'. No police, no fire engine, no cordons, a whole horde of (possibly inebriated) people with fire whose end-goal is to burn a boat on the sea – what could go wrong? Over the years, not much, one local told me. One year the top fell off someone’s torch, and then a police car parked on top of the fire. What happened? I asked. Somebody told them, he replied, somewhat ruefully – not out of malice but the love of a good story. On Friday, there was no fear of anything setting alight, the ground drenched after weeks of rain. Indeed, for a while we weren’t even sure the boat would go ablaze, as horizontal wind quenched the fire’s attempt to set the mast aflame. We weathered the gale stoically, guizer and spectator, until 15 minutes later, as if finally capitulating, the listing mast caught fire. Guy Fawkes has nothing on this.
‘From grand old Viking centuries Up Helly Aa has come
So light the torch and form the march and sound the rolling drum!’