Up Helly Aa: Inside Shetland's Insane Viking Fire Festival | Revolver

Up Helly Aa: Inside Shetland's Insane Viking Fire Festival

People of Lerwick don armor, take up torches and burn dragon longboat in pyrotechnic "fuck-you" to darkness of North Atlantic winter
The climax of Up Helly Aa is the burning of a wooden Viking longboat built over the course of the previous year specially for this night alone. The galley is dragged through the streets of Lerwick, before being set ablaze in the heart of the town.

Once a year, on the last day in January, all the usual rules no longer apply here in Shetland.

These islands sit between Norway and Scotland. They're part of Scotland, but that's misleading — for centuries, they were part of Scandinavia, conquered and peopled by the Vikings. And every year in Lerwick, Shetland's capital, that Viking heritage roars into life during Up Helly Aa — a fiery fuck-you to the long darkness of a North Atlantic winter.

The day, and the town, belongs to the Guizer Jarl and his squad of handpicked men. When night falls they're joined by hundreds more men to march the streets bearing flaming torches, set fire to a dragon-headed galley and then party the night through with the townsfolk. This is Up Helly Aa.


The Guizer Jarl, or chief Viking, is joined by a band of men comprised of friends and family wearing unique outfits that are lovingly handmade for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.


The freedom of the town of Lerwick is ceremonially handed to the Guizer Jarl for the day by the local Shetland government. The blood-red, black-raven banner flies over the town hall.


A hand-painted proclamation is created every year, and posted in the streets of Lerwick. The text is a unique, satirical and sharp account of the previous year's local events in the islands. Up Helly Aa takes no prisoners.


Stewart Jamieson, the Guizer Jarl, has waited a lifetime for his big day. His late father was Guizer Jarl in 1981, representing Thorvald Thoreson from the Norse sagas. In 2018, Stewart portrays Thoreson's son, Thorvald Thorvaldsson, a Viking who lived in Shetland in the 14th century.


The Jarl Squad marches through the narrow streets of Lerwick. The sound of their cheering echoes from the old houses and shop fronts, and can be heard from afar.


Once night falls, the Guizer Jarl, in his wooden galley, is dragged through the streets of Lerwick at the head of a procession of some 1,000 guizers all bearing flaming torches.


The main body of guizers are not dressed as Vikings — their outfits are more lighthearted, and reflect acts they will perform for the entertainment of the townsfolk at the parties that go on throughout the night.


The streetlights of Lerwick are extinguished, and the only light comes from the glow of the flaming torches borne by the guizers. Crowds of onlookers gather to watch the procession and the burning of the galley.


The galley reaches her final resting place in the center of town. The guizers circle her in a ring of fire before, finally, throwing their torches into the body of the galley and setting her on fire.


The climax of the night is the moment when the galley is consumed in a sea of flames. The heat is intense, and clouds of sparks are blown high into the night sky. The guizers and townsfolk depart now for parties that will go on through the night until dawn.