Yup, Up Helly Aa is as fierce as it looks. Hoards of angry Vikings and their burning ships surround the Shetland Islands on an annual basis; bringing mayhem to the local community that just can’t get rid of those pesky Vikings. Or, so I assume if we had lived 1,200 years ago. It’s one epic way to experience Up Helly Aa in Scotland.
Well, thankfully, the age of angry and chaotic Vikings has long since passed; but the tradition of Up Helly Aa has stayed as strong as ever.
The whole festival is incredible and a perfect excuse to explore some of the best places in Scotland.
When does “Up Helly Aa” start?
For hundreds of years, The Shetland Islands in Scotland have continually celebrated Up Helly Aa around mid-winter time. In the last few decades, this has been on 28th January.
This all signifies the end of the Yule season (which is the traditional Scottish Christmas period) and the best time to experience Up Helly Aa.
I can’t think of a more useful way to burn off those extra Christmas-induced calories than by hauling a 4 ton Viking boat around some islands. Ha!
What do “Vikings” do at this festival?
Thousands of participants known as guizers take to the streets of many of the main towns in the Shetlands to celebrate this awesome tradition!
Every single year a new Viking vessel is built and produced (especially for Up Helly Aa), by local residents, who (during the festival) become fondly known as The Jarl Squad.
During the twilight hours on the 28th of January, the excitement begins to mount.
Thousands of traditional torches are lit and fires burn across the islands and it’s totally one of the best ways to experience Up Helly Aa.
Locals and visitors are welcome to partake (responsibly) in the event – which makes it an amazing experience for all involved. Each of the “squads” that partake in the event regularly chooses them for themselves, some; scary, some funny, some traditional.
It all depends on the individual group.
After the town becomes ablaze with excitement, the ship is dragged to its final resting place where traditional Up Helly Aa songs are sung.
Finally, and for you pyromaniac Vikings, the whole town throws their torches into the vessel. Setting the whole boat and festival-spirit alight.
What to drink at Up Helly Aa?
Be prepared for the brisk and chilly Scottish winter with a warm Scottish tipple.
After a few hours of singing, hot toddy’s will begin to flow! A piping hot cocktail of traditional Scotch whiskey, hot water, lashings of honey, cinnamon and lemon juice.
Residents and visitors take to the various halls to celebrate together; sometimes inside, sometimes in the streets.
How to get there?
Up Helly Aa is a great way to experience a truly authentic tradition in Scotland! Although the Shetland Islands are some 600 miles or so north of London (the same distance as flying to Milan from London).
Honestly, there are many ways to get to experience Up Helly Aa and visiting doesn’t need to be a barrier, it’s pretty well connected.
From direct flights from London to a ferry journey from Aberdeen or Orkney. The Shetland Isles can also be a stop on some Nordic cruise ship excursions.
Don’t fret if you can’t make it to the Shetlands the local government streams the whole tradition live on their website; a perfect way to see the festival from your warm snuggly bed.
No visit to the Shetland Isles would be complete without saying hello to their most famous inhabitants. Shetland Ponies of-course.
Well, after you experience Up Helly Aa that is!