Up Helly Aa, Shetland & Orkney

Up Helly Aa, Shetland & Orkney.

Blog – 28th January 2021.

A private tour of Scotland heading north through the Highlands to Orkney Isles and then onto the Shetland Isles in the month of January may just be the perfect start to 2022 for you. It may also make 2021 a little bit more bearable, safe in the knowledge that an adventure, in the month of January, of the following year, is what you are now looking forward to - touring to some far northern land in the depths of a dark Scottish winter. This may just be the light you are looking for! And the light you will see, will light up the night sky like a beacon, as it has done for centuries, and it is known in the Shetland Isles as, Up Helly Aa.

Up Helly Aa, is a winter festival in Shetland, Scotland – where the skies are lit by the glow from flaming torches and burning galley ships, and where Vikings and Guizers of all types take to the streets to celebrate the return of the sun. The Islands capital, Lerwick, holds its fire festival on the last Tuesday of January and is attended by up to 1000 people. Dare I say it? It’s a party! What better way to say goodbye to two awful years of lockdown and restrictions, than standing in the north, with light against a black sky, in celebration of something positive and new approaching?

Known as the ‘Northern Mardi Gras’ Shetland’s Up Helly Aa is an amazing spectacle, a celebration of Norse history, and a wonderful insight into islanders’ skills and spirit. It only lasts one day and continues long into the night. The event takes a year to organise and is done in strict secrecy. The biggest secret of all is what the head of the festival, the ‘Guizer Jarl’ will wear and which character from the Norse Sagas he’ll represent.

Up Helly Aa goes back at least 12 centuries and is a festival of fire, feasting, fancy dress and partying. Torch lit processions and galley burning are symbolic of Pagan Norse rituals at the cremation of chieftains, and religious ceremonies to mark the return of the sun after the winter solstice.

From the website Lerwick Up Helly Aa | Shetland.org

Lerwick’s Jarl will have been planning (and saving up for) the longest day of his life for 15 years or more, before he dons his raven-winged helmet, grabs axe and shield, and embarks on a 24-hour sleepless marathon. Along with the rest of the committed, volunteer crew, he’ll have spent thousands of hours planning and preparing each and every detail of Up Helly Aa and its associated events, until his big day dawns. 

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, almost 1,000 heavily disguised men, in groups, known as ‘squads’, form ranks in the darkened streets of Shetland’s capital. Only the lead, or Jarl Squad, wear Viking dress. Each guizer shoulders a stout fencing post, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking. On the stroke of 7.30pm, a signal rocket bursts over the Town Hall. The torches are lit, the band strikes up and the amazing, blazing procession begins, snaking half a mile astern of the Guizer Jarl, standing proudly at the helm of his doomed replica longship, or 'galley'.It takes half an hour for the Jarl's squad of Vikings to drag him to the burning site, through a crowd of 5,000 spectators or more.

The guizers circle the dragon ship in a slow-motion Catherine Wheel of fire. Another rocket explodes overhead. The Jarl leaves his ship, to a crescendo of cheers. A bugle call sounds, and then the torches are hurled into the galley.

As the inferno destroys four months of painstaking work by the galley builders, the crowd sings 'The Norseman's Home' – a stirring requiem that can bring tears to the eyes of the hardiest Viking.

The whole event is stirring, moving, memorable with lots of fun in a friendly atmosphere. We love this event and look forward to taking our guests on a true once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

While on Shetland we will also visit an amazing Broch (5000-year-old Iron Age Round Tower) and an Iron Age Village as well as experiencing some of the most beautiful coastal scenery anywhere in the world. We will visit scenic St Ninians Isle with its sandbar beach. You will also have time to explore the lovely town of Lerwick.

On the way to and from Shetland we will also stop in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Isles. Whilst on Orkney we will visit some of the most amazing Neolithic sites in the world such as Skara Brae, The Ring of Brodgar, The Standing Stones of Stenness, and Maes Howe Chambered Cairn as well as enjoying some time in the lovey town of Kirkwall.

We are sure, that after the disruption to travel caused by Corona Virus, people will want to ‘get out there’ even more so then ever before. Our tours of Scotland, Ireland and the UK aim to appeal to your ‘spirit of adventure’ by travelling to the most beautiful places and experiencing local flavours, culture, and history. We are looking forward to getting out there too. 2021 will see us working on our business and creating better tours for you to experience for when the time comes, and we start travelling again.

We can’t think of a better way to get our travel calendar moving again than a January visit to the Shetland Isles for this truly unique and local festival. And we believe you deserve this little piece of northern uniqueness too, just to get you through 2021, and start your travels again in 2022.

The Up Helly Aa festival will take place on the 25th of January 2022.

Please contact us for a tailor-made experience to the Up Helly Aa festival which also includes a visit to The Orkney Isles.