Up-Helly-Aa: Norse Code
Neil Ratley fulfils a lifetime ambition and meets some real-life Vikings at the Up-Helly-Aa Fire Festival. Don’t worry though, they are not as nasty as legend would have it.
I'm standing in Lerwick town square, watching the early morning fog whip around the narrow cobbled streets, surrounded by a throng of local islanders and a few hardy tourists. Suddenly, as the steady beat of drums and the drone of bagpipes shatters the silence, 60 fully armed – and very hairy – Viking warriors come marching out of the haze.
I'm not scared though. The reason I'd made the choppy voyage to Lerwick, over the waters where the Atlantic ocean and North Sea collide, was to discover the Scottish Vikings for myself. This is no time to be a wimp. Norwegian Vikings colonised Shetland in the late 9th century and there is still a strong Norse influence in the life and culture of today’s inhabitants.
I want to see if rumours from the alehouses of Edinburgh proved to be true and knew the annual Up-Helly-Aa festival would provide me with my best chance of encountering the burly and bearded warriors of myth and legend. So here I am.
This pagan fire festival - the largest in Europe – can be traced back to ancient times. Up-Helly-Aa marks the end of the old Yule season and is a plea to the gods for the sun to return and burn away the long winter nights. More importantly, after all the pyrotechnics, it is a chance for the island people to eat, drink and dance with reckless abandon.
On the day the festival begins, months of planning and diligent effort from organisers ensures that there is a full size replica Viking galley (to be torched later), a Jarl (an iconic figure from Norse legend) and his personal squad of Viking warriors called 'guizers'. The Jarl is the central figure in the festival and may have had to wait patiently for up to 15 years to get his chance of leading his warriors on a 24-hour romp of pillaging and plundering through the town.
That evening around 900 men (unfortunately there are still no women Vikings) organise themselves into squads, each wearing its own costume. The Jarl stands proudly on the bow of his doomed galley as his squad of Vikings prepare to lead the half-mile long column. As the clock on the old Town Hall strikes 7.30pm, 900 fuel-soaked torches are set ablaze. For the next half an hour the flaming column snakes its way through the streets of Lerwick. Thousands of cheering spectators gather around, soaking up the warmth delivered by the giant torches. Ash and cinders fall like rain from the smoky sky and I – sensibly clad in waterproofs – have to remain vigilant to the possibility of my jacket catching alight. I certainly don't want to end up as an unexpected sacrifice to Thor.
Finally the Jarl and his galley are brought to rest at the burning site. He disembarks and leads his men and the rest of the squads in a purposeful and solemn circular march around the galley. When a bugle call cries out from the darkness, the flaming torches are hurled into the galley. With the fiery pyre crackling and sparkling, ‘The Norseman’s Home’ is sung and the islander’s prayers for an end to winter rise up with the plumes of billowing smoke.
By the time the last embers are struggling for life, the streets are deserted. Every available space has been converted or commandeered into a venue for dancing, singing and drinking. Into the early hours of the morning, I do the same, trying my best to channel the spirit of the ancient Vikings. When sunrise eventually arrives to a frosty town, the descendants of the Norsemen finally begin to stagger home, and I can only imagine the Viking gods must be smiling down from above in approval.
The most convenient and cheapest method of reaching Shetland is a combination of land and sea travel, through the port city of Aberdeen. Car and passenger ferries sail from Aberdeen seven nights a week, year-round, arriving in Lerwick early the following morning, www.northlinkferries.co.uk
For those wishing to avoid the swells of the Atlantic Ocean, there are several daily flights operated by Loganair from the mainland; Aberdeen (55 mins), Edinburgh (85 mins) and Glasgow (90 mins), 0871 700 2000, www.loganair.co.uk
If you fancy a hassle free, fun filled Viking adventure, then Haggis Adventures may be worth checking out. Their five-day tour departs Edinburgh on Sun 25 Jan. The £449 tour includes return ferry tickets, accommodation and a Haggis guide to protect you from any berserk Vikings, 0131 557 9393, www.haggisadventures.com