I’ve just got home after leading a winter wildlife Up Helly Aa tour for Shetland Wildlife. Up Helly Aa? It’s a fire festival held here in Shetland on the last Tuesday in January, celebrating our islands’ Viking heritage… and providing a convenient excuse for messing around with flaming torches in a built-up area, setting fire to a Viking longboat, and enjoying general revelry and hijinks.
Needless to say, that’s a recipe for a lot of fun. The main squad of Vikings, the jarl squad, sport bespoke Viking garb – no two years are the same, and their outfits are eagerly anticipated. Besides them there are hundreds of other men, or guizers, who turn out in a variety of outlandish costumes depending on their respective squad’s theme in any given year .
At 7:30pm Lerwick’s streetlights are turned off; a maroon distress rocket is fired into the sky to signal the start of the night’s proceedings; and the rooftops of the houses beside the town hall glow red with the light of the flares being used to ignite the hundreds of flaming torches that the guizers will carry through the town.
Proceeded by the Viking clad jarl squad and their wooden galley, the men march along Lerwick’s streets, ending up marching in ever tighter circles around the galley. There’s a lot of good-natured roaring, shouting and singing, and the hundreds of torches are thrown into the galley. In no time the boat is consumed with flames. The men then head off to visit a number of halls scattered around the town, where local folk wait their arrival for a night of dancing and good times fuelled by much alcohol, reestit mutton soup, and bannocks.
I’ve been out in a squad, marching through the town on a rainy night in a terrifying faceless mask (I reduced small children in the watching crowd to tears…). This year I was a spectator with my guests, and we were blessed with a dry evening ideal for the procession – the culmination of three days of wildlife watching that had featured the full panoply of Shetland’s winter wonders – snow-white Mountain Hare, Otters, seals aplenty, scarce white-winged gulls from Greenland and Iceland, displaying Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks, and even Harbour Porpoises – often a hard animal to see at this time of year.
It had been a good weekend in great company, and the procession and galley burning was a tremendous finale. It was good for the soul to be out sharing wildlife with friends old and new, and I felt proud of my adopted home as I watched the flames consume another year’s boat.