Up Helly Aa (/ˌʌp hɛli ˈɑː/ UP-hel-ee-AH;[1][2] literally "Up Holy [Day] All") is a type of fire festival held annually from January to March in various communities in Shetland, Scotland, to mark the end of the Yule season. Each festival involves a torchlit procession by squads of costumed participants (known as guizers) that culminates in the burning of an imitation Viking galley. The largest festival held in Lerwick, Shetland's capital, involves a procession of up to a thousand guizers who march through the streets of Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January.[3] The other rural festivals (known as the 'country' Up Helly Aas)[4] see lower numbers of participants in accordance with their lower populations.

Guizers at an Up Helly Aa celebration in Uyeasound, Shetland Islands, February 2010



The current Lerwick celebration grew out of the older yule tradition of tar barrelling which took place at Christmas and New Year as well as Up Helly Aa. Squads of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges, making mischief.[5] According to the Shetland Museum, the catalyst for the establishment of Up Helly Aa was the boredom of young men after their return from fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, which had given them an opportunity to see spectacles abroad.[6] Concern over public safety and levels of drunkenness led to a change in the celebrations, and saw them drawing inspiration from the islands' Viking history.[7] After the abolition of tar barrelling around 1874–1880, permission was eventually obtained for torch processions. The first Yule torch procession took place in 1876. The first torch celebration on Up Helly Aa Day took place in 1881. The following year the torchlit procession was significantly enhanced and institutionalised through a request by a Lerwick civic body to hold another Up Helly Aa torch procession for the visit of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.[8][9] The first galley was fabricated and burned in 1889.[10] In 1894 Haldane Burgess, a Shetland author, wrote the book The Viking Path which was a major influence in creating the Viking theme of the Up Helly Aa festival.[11] Burgess also wrote the Up Helly Aa Song which is sung at the burning of the replica longship and elsewhere.[11] The honorary role of the 'Jarl' was introduced to the festival in the early twentieth century.[12] In reality, despite many sources claiming these ancient origins, the festival, and many like it, were products of Victorian do-goodery. The Lerwick Up-Helly Aa was first established by the Total Abstinence Society in the 1870s to give the young men who would otherwise drink themselves silly something to do.[citation needed] The name itself derives from Upholiday, the lowland Scots' word for Twelfth Day, and was brought by them to the Shetland Islands in the 19th century.[13]

The modern event


There is a main guizer who is dubbed the "Jarl" (pron. "yarl"). There is a committee which a person must be part of for 15 years before one can be a jarl, and only one person is elected to this committee each year. The procession culminates in the torches being thrown into a replica Viking longship or galley. The event happens all over Shetland and is currently celebrated at eleven locations – Scalloway, Lerwick, Nesting and Girlsta, Uyeasound, Northmavine, Bressay, Cullivoe, Norwick, Waas, the South Mainland and Delting.[14] After the procession, the squads visit local halls (including schools, sports facilities and hotels), where private parties are held. At each hall, each squad performs its act, which may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing.

Certain aspects of the festival have been changed for the modern day; for example, as of 2020 the use of blackface has been banned at festivals in Shetland.[15] Traditionally the guizers at the main festival in Lerwick have always been male[16] (although some women joined the march in 1901 disguised in their costumes[17]). However some smaller rural festivals now include women and the South Mainland Up Helly Aa festival appointed a female Jarl in 2015.[18] Starting from the 2023 festival, restrictions on women's participation within squads in Lerwick were removed.[19]



According to John Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1818),[20] up is used in the sense of something being at an end, and derives from the Old Norse word uppi which is still used in Faroese and Icelandic, while helly refers to a holy day or festival. The Scottish National Dictionary defines helly, probably derived from the Old Norse helgr (helgi in the dative and accusative case, meaning a holiday or festival), as "[a] series of festive days, esp. the period in which Christmas festivities are held from 25th Dec. to 5th Jan.",[21] while aa may represent a', meaning "all".[22]


See also



  1. ^ "Up-Helly-Aa". Lexico UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 27 February 2020.
  2. ^ "Up-Helly-Aa". Collins English Dictionary. HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  3. ^ "Up Helly Aa". Up Helly Aa official website. Up Helly Aa Committee. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  4. ^ "Lerwick Up Helly Aa". Shetland.org. Retrieved 24 February 2020.
  5. ^ Oliver, Neil (2012). Vikings: A History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-7802-2282-0.
  6. ^ Smith, Brian (19 January 2021). "Up Helly Aa has a most interesting history". Shetland Museum & Archives. Retrieved 5 January 2023.
  7. ^ Davies, Owen (2011). Paganism : a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 95. ISBN 9780199235162. OCLC 731984995.
  8. ^ Callum G. Brown, Up-helly-aa: Custom, Culture, and Community in Shetland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), ISBN 1901341070, pp. 126-139.
  9. ^ "It cost £4,940 15/6d to build, now monument to civic splendour is 125". The Shetland Times. 25 July 2008. Retrieved 26 December 2008.
  10. ^ "The Galley". Up Helly Aa. NB Communication. Retrieved 29 January 2014.
  11. ^ a b Bennett, Daniel (28 January 2020). "Up Helly Aa: The songwriter who introduced Vikings to Shetland's fire festival". BBC News. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  12. ^ Oliver, Neil. Vikings: A History. p. 9.
  13. ^ Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 43 ff.
  14. ^ "Fire Festival Events". Shetland.org. Retrieved 24 February 2020.
  15. ^ "Blackface 'will not be tolerated' at Up Helly Aa festival". BBC News. 10 June 2020. Retrieved 23 September 2020.
  16. ^ Murray, Ewan (29 August 2018). "Gender row over Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival". BBC News. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  17. ^ Huband, Sally (2 August 2020). "Up Helly Aa sexism under the spotlight". The Times.
  18. ^ "Female Viking Lesley Simpson makes Shetland history". BBC News. 13 March 2015. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  19. ^ Cope, Chris (22 June 2022). "Women and girls allowed: gender restriction removed on Lerwick Up Helly Aa squads". Shetland News. Retrieved 22 June 2022.
  20. ^ Jamieson, John (1818), "upp-helli-a'", An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language; in which the Words are Explained in their Different Senses, Authorized by the Names of the Writers by whom they are Used, or the Titles of the Works in which they Occur, and Deduced from their Originals, Edinburgh: Printed for A. Constable and Co., and A. Jameson by Abernethy & Walker, OCLC 4363471.
  21. ^ William Grant, ed. (1931–1975), "helly", The Scottish National Dictionary, Designed Partly on Regional Lines and Partly on Historical Principles, and Containing All the Scottish Words Known to be in Use or to have been in Use since c. 1700, vol. 5, Edinburgh: Scottish National Dictionary Association, OCLC 780478, 10 vols., as reproduced in Victor Skretkowicz; Susan Rennie; William A. Craigie, eds. (2004), Dictionary of the Scots Language = Dictionar o the Scots Leid, Dundee: University of Dundee, OCLC 57069714.
  22. ^ "uphalie-", Scottish National Dictionary, reproduced in the Dictionary of the Scots Language.