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The Shetland Islands, off the northern tip of Scotland and the west coast of Norway, are fast becoming one of Scotland’s most sought-after travel destinations. Some visitors are attracted to the islands’ stark beauty. Others are keen on exploring Shetland’s fictional murders, thanks to the popular TV series Shetland. More are attracted to the incredible array of cultural activities and festivals.

One of those amazing activities is the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick.

The Up Helly Aa Fire Festival.

1. Community Is Everything

The Up Helly Aa festival takes place in Lerwick every year on the last Tuesday in January. Occasionally described as the Mardi Gras of the north, the event relies on thousands of volunteer participants and organizers and involves a series of marches and visitations with stops at hospitals and schools before culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a galley (or replica) Viking longship.

The Up Helly Aa Fire Festival.

2. The Festival Has Viking And Victorian Roots

Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa festival is technically a Victorian-era event. It was first established by the Total Abstinence Society in the 1870s to give young men something fun to do to mark the end of the yule season. However, the festival has a decidedly Viking flair to it and is equally a tribute to the islands’ Viking roots.

The festival in its current form grew from an even older tradition known as tar barreling, which also took place around New York. Groups of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through the town, causing mischief along the way. Thankfully, the fire used at the Up Helly Aa festival today is far less destructive!

The Up Helly Aa Fire Festival.

3. The Tradition Of The Procession

A procession of “guizers,” or folks dressed in costumes, are divided into different squads. Their costumes reflect historical themes, and the squads start the day by making community visits and participating in a civic reception. Later, they march through the town with torches in hand. After some songs are sung, the torches are thrown onto a wooden galley, which quickly becomes a blaze of flames. After a final song, the procession breaks up and the squads visit local community halls. Celebrations go long into the night as the squads take turns visiting the different halls.

The Up Helly Aa Fire Festival.

4. The Jarl Is Top Dog

Of all the participating guizers, none is so important as the Jarl. To be selected for the role of Jarl, or head guizer, one must have been a committee participant for at least 15 years. Even joining the committee is difficult -- only one new member is elected each year. The Jarl adopts an honorary name that reflects a figure in Norse mythology and is kept a tight secret until the day of the festival. The Jarl is supported by the Jarl squad, the most prominent group of guizers in the festival.

The Up Helly Aa Fire Festival.

5. Stores And Shops Help Build The Excitement

Even those not directly involved in the festival help build the excitement in the weeks leading up to it. The shops and stores of the community participate in a window-decorating competition. All window designs relate to a theme or in some way represent the spirit of Up Helly Aa. Creativity, attention to detail, and originality are all taken into account in the judgment process, and ultimately, it’s up to the Jarl to crown the winner.

A man and his son dressed up for Up Helly Aa.

6. Visitors Are Welcome, But Tickets Aren’t Guaranteed

Anyone visiting Lerwick, Shetland, is welcome to be a part of the day by watching the procession. And thousands do! However, the hall celebrations are ticketed events, and those attending are invited guests. Occasionally, some halls will have tickets available to the public. The Shetland Tourist Board can also put you on a waiting list for an available ticket. However, know that there are no guarantees, and plan your visit accordingly.

The Up Helly Aa Fire Festival.

7. Want To Be In A Squad? You Need These Two Things

Many travelers who’d venture to Shetland would also relish the opportunity to be a part of the revelry that is an Up Helly Aa squad.

But to do so, you’d need to move to Shetland -- and live there for at least five years. That’s right, guizers need to call Shetland home before participating. Secondly, all participants are men. While other festivals across Shetland have female guizers and even female Jarls, this isn’t the case in Lerwick.

The fight for greater inclusion has caused debate and even tension within the community, and aggressive social media posts have targeted women’s rights activists.

The Up Helly Aa Fire Festival.

8. There’s A Lot of History In The Name

The word Up in Up Helly Aa is used to indicate that something is at an end. It comes from the Old Norse word uppi. Helly refers to a holy day or festival. It’s believed to be derived from the Old Norse word helgr, whose meaning relates to a holiday or festival. Finally, Aa is believed to mean all. In other words, Up Helly Aa very roughly translates as “This marks the end of holy days and festivals, all of them,” which is definitely an appropriate sentiment to mark the end of Christmas and New Years!

Whether or not Up Helly Aa is calling your name, there is so much to do on the Scottish isles. Learn how to spend a night in this once-abandoned Scottish village, plus 11 amazing hidden gems in Edinburgh.

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