Up Helly Aa, as it's known today, is a relatively recent introduction to the Shetland calendar, though its origins are rooted far back in time. The torchlit procession and burning of the galley (Viking longship) stem from the ritual cremations of Norse chieftains and the ancient pagan ceremonies held to welcome the return of the sun following the winter solstice. The elaborate use of disguises seen today echo prehistoric fertility rites; even until the Middle Ages people dressed in straw costumes to encourage the gods to bless them with bountiful crops and productive animals. The feasting and all-night partying is reminiscent of the Viking drinking halls of times gone by. Norse skalds were known for their sharp wit and today this tradition is continued in the form of the 'Bill' which is displayed on the Market Cross from early morning on the day of Up Helly Aa.
A Different Calendar to the Rest of the UK
Shetland retained the Julian calendar long after the rest of the UK adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. This meant Christmas was celebrated on the modern-equivalent of January 5th, New Year on January 12th, and Uphellia which marked the end of the Yuletide festivities was celebrated 24 days after Christmas making it the 29th January. The celebrations involved fire and feasting, but not Vikings.
It's all Napoleon's Fault
The Auld Yule and Auld New Year (old Christmas and New Year) were celebrated in Lerwick with guizers (people in disguise) grouping together to visit private houses and be treated to food and drink. The festivities were lively and lasted all night. Uphellia festivities, on the other hand, are thought to have been more of a rural tradition, presumably because appeasing pagan gods in the hope of ensuring a good crop was of far more relevance to the country folk than the townsfolk. The festival only really spread to the main town of Lerwick when soldiers and sailors returning from the Napoleonic Wars brought their newly-acquired tastes for firearms and debaucherous partying with them. The adoption of Uphellia was a good excuse to let their hair down, kick their heels up and set fire to things.
This year's Up Helly Aa programme quotes the diary entry of a Methodist missionary who visited in 1824:
'the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o'clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night - the street was thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.'
A Merging of Traditions (and calendars)
Over time the Auld Yule and Auld New Year traditions in Lerwick melded with the rural Uphellia celebrations in the beginnings of the Up Helly Aa festival we see today. By 1879 it was decided that Christmas and New Year would follow the rest of Britain and be held on the 25th December and 1st January. The Uphellia celebrations continued to adhere to the old calendar and were still held on January 29th.
Burning Barrels of Tar
Around 1840 burning tar barrels were rolled down Lerwick's narrow main street for the first time. Rum or beer casks were cut in half and filled with wood shavings mixed with coal tar (the tar being acquired as it was 'accidently' left outside the gasworks). Up to ten barrels would be fastened to a trolley and pulled, burning, through the street. This continued until the 1870s when the ideas that are still seen today started to come into play. The tar barrels had been dirty and dangerous, more so because rival groups often came to blows when they met in the street. Special constables were introduced to little effect. Despite complaints by the middle classes and interventions by the town council it seems that the tar barrelling only came to an end because the interests of the participants were changing and enthusiasm was developing in Shetland's Viking past.
And then there were Vikings
Firstly, the festival began to be known as Up Helly Aa (sometimes Up Helly A') and, rather than the 29th, the last Tuesday in January was fixed as the date. Guizing was introduced in a much more elaborate form, as was the torchlight procession. The first clear Viking themes were introduced in 1877 and in 1881 the first torchlight procession took place with 60 torches carried through the street. By the late 1880s the galley (Viking longship) had appeared. In 1906 the first Guizer Jarl (chief guizer) was appointed.
It was only after the First World War that the tradition of the Guizer Jarl having his own squad of Vikings became an annual event. Although money was tight in the 1930s the festival limped through. It was in these poverty stricken times that the 'Bill' poking fun at those in charge became the greatly anticipated proclamation it is today. The BBC filmed the festival in 1949 and it was from this year on, that the previously haphazard timings became the tightly adhered to schedule we see today. Since 1956 there has also been a Junior Jarl's squad.
For more about the modern celebrations see here for a post I've previously written.
You can find the Up Helly Aa website here.