Looking for a giant bonfire to escape winter’s icy touch? A 24-hour celebration to bury memories of how warm it is back home in Australia? Fixated on that show Vikings for one reason or another (*cough, #hotvikings) and feel the need to live it firsthand, costumes and all? Or maybe you’re chasing a winter festival leaning on the side of unusual? Believe it or not, the answer, our friends, is blowing in the wild islands of Shetland – where Scotland meets Scandinavia – home of that Shetland pony and the Up Helly Aa Viking Festival held annually on the last Tuesday of January in Lerwick.

The Jarl Squad, a blazing ship and a 24-hour party

Blizzards, sunshine and all weather in between, we’re told nothing stops the Up Helly Aa Viking Festival. A fire festival to end all fire festivals, Up Helly Aa attracts thousands of visitors to Shetland’s chilly shores each year and, for the past 12 centuries or more, is based on the principles of fire, feasting, fancy dress and fun! Up Helly Aa Viking Festival is a 100-year-old celebration of Shetland’s history that lasts 24 hours, takes thousands of people to organise, and is centred around the ‘Guizer Jarl’ – the lucky local gent who will don full Viking attire (think helmet, axe and shield) to play the part of a doomed Norse character of yesteryear.

Your Up Helly Aa adventure will go a little something like this – on the evening of the event, nearly 1,000 disguised Vikings with unlit torches will descend on the streets of Lerwick and await a signal, which is none other than a rocket bursting over the town hall and a brass band, to light their fires and begin a procession to a specially made galley (longship) with the Guizer Jarl at the helm. Then, after dragging away the Guizer Jarl, the ship is torched. The Jarl Squad then frequents the parties of local halls throughout the night to perform Norse enactments, skits, dances and more. Of course, you’re in Scotland so the party doesn’t stop there – for the reveller with endurance, it goes on to the following day and night, which is known as the ‘Guizer’s Hop’.  

Lerwick

When is it?

26th January 2016

Tips and tricks

  • Up Helly Aa Viking Festival is becoming more and more popular, so it’s a good idea to book accommodation and transfers (including the ferry!) in advance or do a tour where transport, accommodation and some meals are covered for you.

  • Plan your viewpoint of the spectacle – the process starts at Lower Hillhead and follows a route to the north at King George V Playing Field and the burning site.

  • Impress the locals and immerse yourself in the culture of the event – learn the 'The Norseman's Home' to sing along with the crowd as the galley burns. It will give you goosebumps.

  • Islands in Scotland during winter, a fancy dress festival and potentially an all-night party means comfy shoes and warm attire are a must when planning your Viking outfit.

  • Pre-plan your camera settings with a fully charged battery and a onceover of the manual, switch your camera to manual setting and set to low light awesome. Think maximum aperture, high ISO and removing the UV filter to start.

  • Take an extra few days to see the sights of Shetland – there’s 6,000 years of history to explore.

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