In the north of Scotland, in the coldest darkest days of winter, fire – lots of it – is the thing to raise the spirits. In Lerwick, Shetland, hundreds of people take part in Up Helly Aa, a celebration of the island’s Viking heritage which has been taking place since the 1880s. Each year at the end of January, more than 40 squads of around 20 men take part in a torch-lit procession through the town. All are disguised in fancy dress. The lead group of these ‘Guizers’ is the Jarl Squad, led by the Guizer Jarl.
The Guizer Jarl and his Jarl Squad all wear Viking costumes. Each year, a new Guizer Jarl is appointed and with his squad has to design and make all of these, being careful not to recreate any designs which have gone before. The Guizer Jarl ‘s costume, however (complete with winged helmet, armour, shield and axe) is handed down from the previous Jarl; the incumbent need only produce his own tunic and cloak.
Proceedings on Up Helly Aa day begin in the morning with the Jarl Squad visiting various locations around the town, including the Market Cross where the ‘Bill’ (a humorous and often satirical hand-painted proclamation) is displayed for the day. In the late afternoon, a junior torch-lit procession takes place in advance of the main procession, when close to 1,000 flaming torches are carried through the town. At the head of the procession, the Guizer Jarl is carried aboard a 9 metre long wooden Viking galley.
The culmination of the day’s activities sees the galley encircled by the Guizers who sing the Up Helly Aa song before throwing their flaming torches into the boat. As the galley burns, there’s more singing, after which the Guizers begin a night of celebrations, drinking and partying until the following morning.