The main festival is in Lerwick and is held on the last Tuesday in January, but there are others held throughout the islands until the end of March. The parade and boat burning is open to everyone and of course would be wonderful, but the real fun seems to happen in the evenings when the various Jarl squads (Viking gangs) go round lots of halls and basically party all night. The halls are private invitation only and so to get the most out of the experience I'd have to sneak an invite. This might be easier to do in the islands rather than in Lerwick.
As I'm in Lerwick, I went to the Up Helly Aa exhibition in the boat shed. There were lots of costumes, shields, and part of a replica boat displayed. As well as Viking costumes, the various squads each choose a theme and people dress according to the theme, so there were also costumes in the shape of cartoon characters, chocolate bars and so on.
I watched a video showing the year long preparations for the festival and what happens on the day itself. The preparations involve the making of the boat, all costumes, shields and torches. During the day the squads visit schools, the old folks' home, the hospital, etc so that everyone gets to be involved. Then they have the main march through misty, hazy, gloomy, drizzly, wintry Lerwick. It looked so atmostpheric on the film. At the end of the march the boat is burnt. It doesn't get put to sea as I'd thought, but is burnt on dry land. All the Vikings toss their burning torches on to it. As they stand all around it I wondered what would happen if one tossed their torch too far and it sailed over the top into the crowd on the other side!
Some of the snippets of interesting info I picked up in the exhibition include:
- The lead Viking is known as the Guizer Jarl - 'Guizer' comes from the word 'disguise' - the members of the various squads wear masks all day so no-one knows who they are. However, the members of the Guizer Jarl's squad are all dressed as Vikings and don't wear masks meaning they can be identified. They all seem to have beards though - do they grow them specially for the event?
- Only men can go on the parade.
- You have to live in Shetland for five years before you can join a squad.
- You have to be chosen to be on the organising committee.
- You work your way up through the ranks on the committee for 15 years - then in the 16th year you are Guizer Jarl.
- You start as a 'water-carrier' making sure everyone in the squad has enough water in their whisky.
- It's very expensive - you need to save up to be Jarl and to raise a lot of money.
- During the day the Guizer Jarl's squadsgo round the schools, old people's homes and the hospital performing, as well as performing and parading in the streets.
- Each squad has a theme for costumes and performance which is kept secret - only the committee knows to make sure there is no overlap.
- In the evening, there is a torchlit parade through Lerwick ending with the burning of the boat.
- Then the squads spend the rest of the night going round the halls, eating, drinking and performing.
- Each squad goes to each hall in a pre-planned order. The Guizer Jarl's squad goes the opposite way round to the others so they meet each of the others in turn.
- Torches are made from 4ft long, thick pieces of wood. Three sacks are rolled round the end and nailed into place. A fourth sack is nailed over the top. Cement is put where the sacked and pole meet to prevent the pole from catching light.
- The sacking end of the pole is soaked in parafin for about 24 hrs. The whole thing ends up weighing 14lbs.
- After Up Helly Aa the Guizer Jarl joins the ex-Jarls and starts at the beginning again as a water-carrier. The job of the exes is to advise the others.
- The halls are privately rented by people who invite their family and friends and prepare loads of food. As they are private you can only go to them if you have been invited.
- The hall parties last all night.
- The schools now have junior Jarl squads.
What a festival! And in one of my favourite places too.