It represents the various kinds of fire festivals that take place in Shetland in Scotland. It was introduced in the 1880’s and has been celebrated ever since.
It is observed on the last Tuesday of January each year. This festival takes place every to mark the end of the Yule season in the middle of winter.
In Lerwick, thousands of mummers or guizers take part in processions wearing various costumes and marching through the town. This festival celebrates the history of Shetland and it is recognized as the biggest festival of fire in the European subcontinent.
This festival has only been cancelled three times. The death of Queen Victoria in the year 1901 and during World War I and World War II led to the cancellation of this event thrice.
From the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, the word ‘Up’ here signifies that something is about to end and ‘Helly’ means a festival or holy day. The National dictionary of Scotland defines the word helly as a stretch of festive days during which the Christmas celebrations are also held. Finally the word ‘Aa’ represents the word ‘all’.
- Tar barreling was a traditional event that used to take place during the celebration of Yule and Up Helly Aa.
- Barrels of burning tar would be dragged throughout the town by young men on sledges and performing various kinds of mischief.
- However around the time 1874-1880, this custom or practice was abolished.
- This was then replaced by processions with torches which first took place in 1876 during Yule. However the first torch procession on the Up Helly Aa day took place in the year of 1881.
- The very first galley or a Viking ship was built and burned in 1889 as part of this festivity.
- Moreover the prestigious title of ‘Jarl’ was introduced in the event in the beginning of twentieth century.
- The Event
- The main mummer or the guizer is given the title of Earl which is known as ‘Jarl’ in those regions.
- That person is the main character in the celebration of this event which takes place on the last Tuesday of the month of January.
- A person has to be a member of a particular committee for a span of fifteen years to be elected as the Guizer Jarl.
- It is a tradition for each Jarl takes the name of a character from the Norse legend. Every year only a single person is elected to this committee.
- Jarl Squad consists of the supporters of Guizer Jarl. It is also a custom to build a replica of a Viking galley, which is a kind of a ship, especially for this event.
- After the sunset this galley is dragged all over the town and it is accompanied by a torch lit procession.
- This consists of members from all squads and it is led by Jarl Squad. Each of the squad chooses its own theme and dress accordingly.
- Finally when resting spot is arrived after marching through the entire town, the torch bearers gather around the replica of the galley and sing the Up Helly Aa song.
- The main part of the torch procession comes when people throw the torches into a replica of galley after singing the song and sets it into fire.
- After the fire dies down and the galley turns into ashes, it is a custom for all the guizers to hum the tune of the traditional “The Norseman’s Home” song.
- This is celebrated all over Shetland and currently it is observed in ten places which are Lerwick, Scalloway, Uyeasound, Bressay, Nesting and Girlsta, Northmavine, Norwick, Delting, the South Mainland and Cullivoe.
- After the procession gets over, the local people gather in public halls to attend parties. Every hall has a presiding Hostess who takes the charge, sends out invitations and makes the arrangements.
- Each of the Guizer Squad visits each hall one by one to drink, dance and celebrate with the other guests.
- At each venue, groups of people perform various acts, skits, dance performances and many other events. This takes place throughout the night and continues in the morning that follows.
- The festivities don’t come to an end here. The night that follows is called the “Hop Night” where people continue to drink, feast and are seen to be in a festive mood.