It is said that fishermen can never get far enough north. Fishermen from Indiana go to Michigan. Fishermen from Michigan go to Ontario. Fishermen from Ontario head for the Arctic.
I found the same thing to be true when I visited Scotland. The first trip I made it north to Caithness. The second trip I made it to the Orkneys. Eventually I made it to Shetland, and once there I worked my way up to the northernmost point on the British Isles.
I didn’t see Up Helly Aa. It comes the last Tuesday in January, and in January I will always be in California, not standing in the wind off the pack ice. But I wouldn’t mind beaming in, watching the festivities, then beaming back before my liver froze.
Up Helly Aa is a relatively new celebration of the end of the Christmas season, mixed with a revival of old Viking themes. As early as 1824, on Christmas eve, a diarist recorded:
the whole town (of Lerwick, Shetland’s capital) was in an uproar; from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting.
If you followed the posts on The Battle for Christmas, this will sound very familiar. Christmas has been domesticated since this report, but the spirit of riot is well represented in Up Helly Aa.
It began as “tar-barreling”. Mobs of masked young men dragged barrels of burning tar through the streets of Lerwick, often colliding with other mobs, and clogging the narrow streets of the town as they made their way toward the harbor. Sober citizens were not amused. The Town Council appointed constables to keep things in check.
About 1870, the participants themselves began to change the proceedings. They invented the name Up Helly Aa, began a torchlight procession, and introduced ‘guizing – going in disguise. Soon Viking themes became common. By the 1880, Viking longships were being dragged through the streets instead of flaming tar barrels, and the ‘guizer Jarl (Jarl is the Viking equivalent of Earl) had become master of ceremonies.
Is there anyone who doesn’t know that dead Viking chiefs were put on their longships, and the ships burned? That’s what happens in modern Up Helly Aa. The purpose-built longship is dragged by torchlight, by masses of young men in Viking costume, down through he narrow streets to the harbor where the torches are all tossed aboard for the fiery finale.
Then the drinking starts in earnest. Who wouldn’t love that?
The day after Up Helly Aa is an official holiday so everyone can recover.