Up Helly Aa – Europe’s Largest Fire Festival

Looking for a reason to head to Scotland’s Shetland Islands – a dark, often wet and cold place in winter? Well, believe it or not, at the end of January the Shetlands are one of the most happening places in Scotland as Lerwick plays host to Europe’s Largest Fire Festival: Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa, as the name implies, has it foundations in Viking culture. It has many meanings: some say it’s a celebration of the end of the festive season, others mention a purification ceremony. The cynic would say what the hell else do you do when it’s cold and dark up there? No matter how you look at it, though, Up Helly Aa is a pretty crazy experience that is a must-see if you get the opportunity.

The night centers around a man known as the Guizer Jarl. He has over 800 Vikings with torches helping him light the streets of Lerwick, as they all march towards a massive replica Viking ship. In dramatic flair, the men throw their torches into the galley of the ship, and mayhem ensues as the ship bursts into flames

The festival doesn’t end there; in fact, it goes all night long, as folks head to private parties.  The Viking “squad” attempt to visit every party, doing a little song and dance in each (and of course, having a drink).  It’s a good think the  nights are long in Lerwick in winter as you need all the hours you can get to get through this Up Helly Aa marathon.

Want to check it out?

You can fly to the Shetlands from Edinburgh, or travel across the mainland and then catch a ferry; make sure you investigate this before you travel as a) it’s a long ride, and b) there aren’t that many trains/ferries so you’ll want to know your schedule. Several companies offer package tours from Edinburgh that include accommodation and transport but these often sell out several months in advance.

Photo by chatirygirl