Every year, to celebrate the passing of the shortest days of the year, hundreds of men from the Shetland Islands channel their inner Vikings, carry torches through the black of the night and burn a purpose-built wooden Viking ship. This is a guide for everything you need to know to organise a trip to Up Helly Aa 2020 on the Shetland Islands in Scotland.
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Scotland’s Viking festival Up Helly Aa is rooted in a long-gone past when the Shetland Islands were not a part of Scotland yet, but rather under Scandinavian reign. Viking culture is an important heritage in Shetland and still very much alive today. Up Helly Aa in Lerwick takes place every year on the last Tuesday of January, however, there are several Viking festivals held in smaller towns and villages around the islands. A few years ago, I fulfilled a life-long dream of mine and went to Shetland to be part of the spectacle, and thought I could tell you everything you need to know about attending Up Helly Aa 2020!
Up Helly Aa 2020 takes place on 28 January 2020!
1) Start planning your trip early
Up Helly Aa is bigger than Christmas – that’s what I was told by a local Shetlander who studies in Glasgow. This means that every spare bed is taken up long in advance, so don’t even think about couch surfing or winging it – you don’t want to dance all night in a hall just because you don’t have a bed to return to…
Shetland is not a mass tourism destination and hotel beds in Lerwick are scarce. Book your accommodation as early as you can. There are also many AirBnBs in and around Lerwick if you want to make a local connection right away and save some money along the way.
The same counts for your transport to the island and rental car if you stay a couple of extra days. You can fly or take the overnight ferry with Northlink Ferries – which we did seeing that it’s cheaper and more reliable during the winter months. On the ferry, we met a couple of Spanish guys travelling to Lerwick rather spontaneously, and they hadn’t made any reservations. We didn’t see them again, but I really hope they got on well and found a place to stay!
2) Only men can be guizers (and they are not all Vikings)
First the bad news: you won’t actually see hundreds of Scotsmen dressed as Vikings. BUT you’ll see hundreds of them in fancy dress!
They are disguised – that’s why they are called Guizers. In Lerwick, around 800-900 men participate in the fire procession. They form squads of 15-50 men, but only the main squad belonging to the Guizer Jarl – the main character of the festival – is dressed up as Vikings. Who gets to be the Guizer Jarl and his squad is decided many years in advance and it is a great honour. The men usually save up a lot of money to pay for their elaborate costumes and the building of the galley.
All the other squads dress in themed fancy dress – some more elaborately than others – but usually in relation to their group performance or skit, they will perform throughout the night in halls across Lerwick.
While the prospect of dressing up as Viking (or the Spice Girls – yes!) in order to burn a ship and dance all night, might sound a bit ridiculous to some, Up Helly Aa is very serious business. Being named Guizer Jarl or walking in his squad is a great honour, and there are many rules applying to the tradition – such as no girls or women allowed in the Guizer squads.
There are fire processions in other places around Shetland that are more lenient, but the event in Lerwick is still held in the same tradition as always, and the men who participate are very proud of this.
3) Know where to park your car
One more piece of practical advice is to know where to park your car if you have one. Many roads in the town centre of Lerwick get closed for the festivities and the last thing you’ll want to worry about is a towed vehicle…
4) How to see the Guizers and the procession
The Jarl squad starts its day at 9 am with a procession to the harbour for photographs – that’s the best time to see their intricate costumes by daylight.
The torchlight procession kicks off at 7.30 pm at Lerwick Town Hall. For the best views, find an elevated spot around the playground between St Olaf Street and King Harald Street.
5) Ask locals to help you out with a hall ticket
Witnessing the procession with its elaborate choreography and the subsequent burning of the galley is just the beginning. The real fun takes place in the halls which open after the ship has been burnt. Many of them are closed venues, operated on an invitation-only basis – so unless you are or know a local involved very well, you’re out.
There are a few halls for which you can buy tickets though, such as the hall at the Legion pub. Tickets are rare, but not impossible to get. Our B&B host helped us with organising two tickets for the night, but you can also find them advertised in the local newspapers. Other halls might also sell tickets at the local tourist office!
6) Put on your dancing shoes
We paid around £35 per head to get access to the Legion, and quickly noticed that we were the only non-locals in the hall. 98% of the crowd were women whose boyfriends and husbands were part of the squads. While neither of this made the bonding sesh with locals much easier, it was still a fun night and we held out until 3 am dancing with multiple guizers dressed as cats, cowboys, and the aforementioned Spice Girls.
The party in the halls starts at 9 pm and lasts until 8 am – good luck lasting that long! Make sure you wear comfortable shoes, particularly if you want to test your skills at some ceilidh dancing.
7) Relax on the following day
The day after Up Helly Aa is, in fact, a public holiday on Shetland, and many places will not be open. Be prepared for a very quiet day and either do an easy road trip or simply relax in your cosy apartment!
8) Plan in some extra time for emergencies (and road trips!)
Two days after we visited Up Helly Aa in 2016, a massive storm hit the Shetland Islands, and many travellers got stranded. The unpredictable weather of the North Atlantic means that flights are often delayed or cancelled, and when it gets really bad, even the ferry has to stay in the harbour.
We were scheduled to leave on Saturday night, and of course – came Friday – the first ferry had to be cancelled. To pass the time we went on a little road trip towards Eshaness lighthouse, which we never reached because the storm was so strong we didn’t dare to go further than the small town of Brae much further inland. We prayed that the ferry would come back the next day, so we could go home and not miss a day at work.
Lucky for us, the storm seemed to have calmed down again by Saturday afternoon, and we were good to sail off towards mainland Scotland – albeit the sea was so rocky, I needed a couple of seasickness pills to knock me out.
The good thing is that even if you get stuck on Shetland there is plenty to do, even in winter, and if the wind allows the archipelago is your oyster! My favourite trip was by far a day trip to the northernmost tip of the Isle of Unst and a walk in the Hermaness nature reserve.
All in all, attending the Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick was an absolutely amazing experience and certainly lived up to my expectations. We only spend a week on Shetland, but its people and beautiful landscape made me fall in love – and certainly wanting to come back one day.
To find out more about Up Helly Aa 2020 in Lerwick, check out their website!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.