Festival Watch: Vikings @ Up Helly Aa

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 03 Dec 2010
  • Up Helly Aa

Ah, the Vikings and their renown as history's most hirsute bunch of raping, pillaging murderers. Well, perhaps not. Recent research from some cardigan and corduroy-donning speccy boffins at Cambridge University suggested that this widely-accepted view of marauders in horned helmets is something of an unfair caricature. In the eighth century the Vikings did land on these shores, hacking monks and suchforth to death and terrifying the populace as a whole, but they soon became an 'integral part of the fabric of social and political life'. This abiding influence of the Vikings, who arrived in Shetland just over 1000 years ago, is celebrated on the last Tuesday of January every year, by the largest fire festival in Europe – Up Helly Aa, a tradition that originated in the 1880s. The festival involves a torch-light procession of up to a thousand 'guizers' (performers in appropriate costume – which in this case involves replica Viking costumes and, well...battleaxes, mega-cool) in Lerwick where a full-size replica Viking longship is ceremonially burned. And then everyone goes to the nearest pub, which seems only fair.

This year's Up Helly Aa takes place on 25 Jan and getting there isn't as difficult as one would imagine. Nightly ferries leave direct to the Shetland Islands from Aberdeen and there are flights to Sumbergh Airport from Edinburgh and Glasgow on a regular basis.

There is ample accomodation in the form of B&Bs, hostels and hotels but if travelling on a real budget, why not stay in a böd, a building formerly used to house fishermen but now essentially a camping barn. On the higher end on the scale there's the option to hire out your very own lighthouse... yes, a lighthouse!

To find out more about getting there and away, check out www.northlinkferries.co.uk

For accommodation, see www.camping-bods.com; www.lighthouse-holidays.com