Wednesday 12 February 2014

Up Helly Aa

The last Tuesday is January is the Lerwick Up Helly Aa. This is the largest fire festival in Europe and is dominated by Vikings. There is a buzz around Up Helly Aa that is hard to avoid or ignore, the shop fronts in town all have displays and a lot of places close on the Wednesday after. I also felt more of a build up this year by attending children's activities with my daughter. After a special Bookbug session (music and stories) with songs such as "Old Man Olaf had a Farm" and a special craft afternoon at the museum making shields and helmets I was very much in the mood. It was lovely to see a group of children in a procession around the museum knowing that they will be the squads of the future.

Things start to warm up before dawn when the Jarl squad unveil the proclamation in the centre of town. The proclamation is a tongue in cheek look at local news and events. Later in the morning the Jarl squad parade through the town with the 'galley', a specially made longboat, before spending the day visiting local schools and groups. The parade is accompanied by a pipe band and a brass band. Normally the galley is taken down next to the Bressay Ferry terminal in front of the harbour for photographs, however this year it was moved to the town hall due to the gales.

The main procession takes place in the evening with all of the squads lighting their torches simultaneously from flares. This year there were 47 squads/ groups of men with the Jarl squad being the squad that dress as Vikings. The other 46 squads have a theme and fancy dress. They parade through the town carrying the torches, singing and following the galley. At the end of the procession the galley is burned (in a children's park of all places). The costume of the Jarl squad is a well kept secret and the craftsmanship is amazing. This year it was all black and white with amazing chain mail and cow skin capes. The helmets were incredibly heavy and the shields were beautifully decorated. Sadly it was very windy but the procession went ahead and it is a fantastic spectacle to see thousands of men march through the town shouting and cheering following a galley. The burning of the galley is impressive as is the ceremony of the whole thing. There is a firework display after. The atmosphere is great and there is a definite buzz of excitement.

Torch lit procession
Following the procession we headed to the hall. The halls are run by a dedicated team of volunteers and for most halls you need to get a ticket from a host or hostess. Each hall is different but the one I was at had a great atmosphere and an amazing band who played through the night in between acts. There was food served along with hot drinks and soft drinks all night. The 47 squads tour around the halls each performing an act. The quality of these acts varied greatly but all had something to offer from sleek choreography, a local campaign, an in-joke at the Guizer Jarl or just men in drag dancing to Beyonce. They were all fun and entertaining. In between the acts there was dancing, I am awful at Ceilidh dancing and have only picked up bits in the last few years but the atmosphere was great and people were more than happy to talk you through it. There were slots allocated to the hosts where they take over the kitchen, I was happy to help my hostess at this point and it was great fun with a lot of banter and a lovely atmosphere. The home bakes that had been donated were amazing and I went through the night on some very yummy cakes.

Burning the Galley
More photos of the day can be found here

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