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Up Helly Aa - Celebrating the Norse History of the Shetlands

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Up Helly Aa - Celebrating the Norse History of the Shetlands

Residents of Lerwick, Shetland, carry a Viking longship through the streets.

Image © Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images 2006

Scotland's Shetland Islands have a rich Viking heritage, and in fact were a part of Norway for some five centuries. As such, the people who live there have a culture that is a unique blend of Scandinavian and Scottish. The town of Lerwick seems to be the home of Up Helly Aa, which is a relatively modern celebration that traces its roots back to the Shetlands' Pagan origins.

During the Regency period and the years following the Napoleonic Wars, Lerwick was the home of many returning soldiers and sailors, most of whom were looking for a good party. It became a rowdy place, particularly during the week after Christmas, and by the 1840s, celebrations usually involved setting lots of things on fire. At some point, burning tar barrels were introduced into the fun, and this led to lots of injury and destruction.

By the 1870s, a group of young people decided that the post-Christmas shindig would be a lot more entertaining if it were organized, and so the first Up-Helly-Aa celebration was begun. They pushed it back to the end of January and introduced a torchlight procession. A decade or so later the Viking theme emerged into Up-Helly-Aa, and the festival started to include a flaming longship each year. Although the event seems to have taken a short break during the World War II years, it resumed in 1949 and has run ever since.

In addition to the Viking longship, there is a lot of planning involved in the celebration, which is held on the last Tuesday of January (the next day is a public holiday, to allow for recovery time). One of the biggest parts of the festival is the costume of the Guizer Jarl, who appears each year as a character from the Norse sagas. Thousands of spectators come to watch the festivities, and hundreds of male residents dress in Viking gear and storm through the streets.

Although Up-Helly-Aa is a modern invention, it's clear that the residents of Lerwick and the rest of the Shetland Islands embrace it as a tribute to their Norse ancestry. It's got fire, food, and lots of drinking -- the perfect way for any Viking to celebrate the season. For more information on the festival, you can go to the Official Up Helly Aa Homepage.

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