VIKINGS! That cry would have sent shivers of terror through the occupants of many a village about to be attacked by those medieval marauders who were famed for their ferocity in battle and their seagoing skills. Fortunate indeed would be the farmer, villager or maiden who managed to evade their bloodthirsty intentions to plunder and kill.
Thankfully, those lawless times are long behind us and nowadays one of the most visible and exciting signs of Scotland’s viking past are the fire festivals held in the Shetland Islands to the north of the Scottish mainland.
Held during the winter months, the largest, most well-known and first to be held each year takes place in January in Lerwick, Shetland’s biggest town. Lerwick Up Helly Aa is the biggest fire festival in Europe attracting thousands of visitors from all over the globe but it is by no means the only Up Helly Aa held on the islands. There are several others in smaller communities taking place up until the end of March.
Each Up Helly Aa has slightly different customs and traditions but they all celebrate the same thing – the end of winter and the return of the sun. Preparations for these festivals can take months and culminate in a torchlit procession and the burning of a replica Viking longship.
These annual festivals are now held to remember the Vikings who, over a thousand years ago, ruled these islands until, in 1468, Shetland became a part of Scotland. Each procession is led by a ‘Guizer Jarl’ followed by his ‘Jarl Squad’ each man fully equipped to go a-viking dressed in fur and leather and carrying swords and axes.
With horned or winged helmets atop their heads and dragging a full-sized replica Viking longship behind them they make a fearsome sight in the flickering light of a thousand flaming torches. When the procession reaches the sea the longship is set on fire by throwing the burning torches onto the ship which, complete with a dragon’s head on its prow, is left to its fiery fate.
The rest of the night is one big party!
WATCH A REPLICA VIKING LONGSHIP BURN!
WHERE ARE THE SHETLAND ISLANDS?
A Scotsman born and bred I love to roam Scotland’s hills and wild places taking photographs and writing about my travels around the country and all things to do with my homeland.