The enduring influence of the Vikings, who arrived in Shetland just over 1000 years ago, is celebrated on the last Tuesday of January every year by fire festivals across Shetland. The events are annual and now take place in mid-Winter, having in some cases evolved from end of year festivities. The centrepiece of these events is a torch-lit procession, culminating in the torching of a replica Viking longship. Lerwick ‘Up Helly Aa’: this is the largest fire festival in Europe. However, this is not the only such event in Shetland: there are other Up-Helly-Aa events in Yell, Norwick, Northmavine and elsewhere. The term Up-Helly-Aa itself dates from the late 19th century and the event evolved from earlier Yuletide and New Year festivities in the town, one notable aspect of which was burning tar barrels, overseen by rival groups of masked revellers. It was around this time that the Lerwick festival was also gradually moved back until the end of January, and the tar-barrelling element was replaced by the burning of a Shetland yoal (traditional boat) decorated with a dragon's head. Also, in this time frame, a far more elaborate element of disguise - ‘guizing’ – was introduced into the new festival. Thirdly, a torchlight procession was inaugurated. At the same time the festival ‘organisers’ were entertaining the idea of introducing Viking themes to their new festival. The first signs of this new development appeared in 1877, but it was not until the late 1880s that a Viking longship - the ‘galley’ - appeared, and as late as 1906 that a ‘Guizer Jarl’, the chief guizer, arrived on the scene. It was not until after the First World War that there was a squad of Vikings, the ‘Guizer Jarl's Squad’, in the procession every year.

Approximately one thousand local ‘Viking’ guizers are involved in the procession itself, while the festivities invoke the participation of much of the town, whilst, at the same time, attracting tourists from across the world. However, precise figures are not yet available. Recent Years: up until the Second World War, the festivities were predominantly of a working class male nature. Since World War Two, the festival has changed dramatically in some respects, whilst, in others, has remained true to earlier traditions. The festival is nowadays larger and clearly more professionally organised, yet remains not-for-profit. At the same time, there are many connections between today’s festivities and those of 150 years ago.

Other Up-Helly-Aa Events:
Similar events take place across Shetland: for example, Yell, the second-most northerly of the main Shetland Islands, hosts its own traditional Viking fire festival at the village of Cullivoe on the north-east coast, overlooking the island of Unst. Northmavine in the northern part of Shetland's mainland, hosts its own Up-Helly-Aa at Hillswick. The form of these events is now very similar to the Lerwick one, although there is some historical evidence that people in rural Shetland, unlike in Lerwick, did celebrate the 24th day after Christmas as ‘Antonsmas’ or ‘Up Helly Night’. These smaller Up-Helly-Aa events, unsurprisingly, have a much lower profile - particularly in terms of having their own online presence but also in terms of their presence on general Shetland websites.

Economic Impact
Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Shetland Council have advised that no specific work has yet been done on the economic impact of the various Up-Helly-Aa festivals. However, the Lerwick event is clearly a high-profile visitor attraction for Shetland, having featured in, among other things, Lonely Planet’s Bluelist. Accepting that its mid-winter schedule is likely to limit the number of non-local spectators, its impact cannot be measured purely in terms of the number of visitors to Up-Helly-Aa itself. What is certain is that the high-profile nature of the event will certainly add to a general positive image of Shetland as a visitor destination. In addition to the annual up-Helly-Aa festivals, there is a permanent Up-Helly-Aa exhibition, which in 2005 received 1200 visitors. It is even more difficult to ascertain the impact of the smaller events, but this is likely to be localised and limited.

This is variable in that although the Lerwick event is famous with a high level of participation and a large number of spectators, other events throughout Shetland, although well-supported locally, are not high profile, and knowledge contained within these smaller events is not, currently, easily availabl


Up Helly Aa
Up Helly Aa 2010 (copyright Richard Parker)

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