Join us on a trip of a lifetime to Shetland’s 2018 Up Helly Aa festival – with packages sailing from Aberdeen
A wander through the streets of Lerwick is normally a quiet, peaceful experience, but take a walk at the end of January and it’s quite likely that you will bump into a squad of very large, very bearded Vikings, resplendent in gleaming chain-mail and winged helmets.
Later, the Vikings and their fancy-dressed followers fill the narrow streets, their flaming torches illuminating the dark winter skies, their boisterous songs filling the air. A 30ft Viking longship is carried aloft before it is set alight with a thousand blazing brands. As the sky over Lerwick shimmers with heat and light, fireworks explode, brass bands play and the gloom of winter is lifted for another year.
This is Up Helly Aa, the annual winter festival of Shetland, which celebrates the lengthening of the days and the coming of another year, not to mention the chance of a good old knees-up. It’s run by Shetlanders for Shetlanders, but that’s not to say visitors aren’t welcome and the island hospitality is as warm as ever.
Shetland is a beguiling place to visit at any time but in the short winter days the islands take on a special character, with steely grey seas and dramatic skies. During our stay we will take in the prehistoric and Norse settlement of Jarlshof to the south, and tour as far as the islands of Yell and Unst to the north. Up Helly Aa itself is on the Tuesday, when we will have the day free to enjoy the various events in Lerwick, culminating in the torchlight procession and boat burning ceremony in the evening, the highlight of an unusual and uplifting winter break.
Our tour begins in Aberdeen where we join the Serco Northlink ferry for the overnight sailing to Lerwick. Accommodation is provided in comfortable two-berth cabins with en-suite facilities and dinner is served on board in the evening, an opportunity to get to know fellow-travellers.
We arrive early the next day at Lerwick and after our full Scottish breakfast on board, we depart on a full-day tour which begins with a visit to Scalloway, the original capital of Shetland. The castle built by Earl Patrick Stewart (not a man you would want to have crossed) still dominates the skyline. More recently, Scalloway was the secret base for the heroes of the Norwegian Resistance and the wartime exploits of the “Shetland Bus” form a courageous memoir.
Later, we head for the south of mainland Shetland, where we visit the outstanding prehistoric and Norse settlement of Jarlshof, with over three acres of remains, spanning 3,000 years since the days of the Stone Age, including Bronze Age houses, Iron-Age broch and wheel houses, Viking long houses and medieval farmhouses.
We continue to Sumburgh Head, the southern tip of mainland Shetland, which is an RSPB reserve and home to thousands of nesting birds, including puffins, kittiwakes and razorbills. From here we transfer to our accommodation, where dinner is served in the evening.
After breakfast on Tuesday, we depart for Lerwick, which you are free to explore at your leisure and view the various activities associated with the Up Helly Aa festival which takes place today. Keep an eye out for the various “squads” of “guizers” – groups of about 20 men who choose a theme and dress up as whatever takes their fancy each year. Only one squad, a different one every year, is allowed to dress up as Vikings and are known as “jarls”, the Viking term for earl. As darkness falls (mid-afternoon at this time of year) the squads begin to assemble for the torchlight parade and eventually a procession of 1,000 men snakes its way through the streets carrying aloft flaming brands of paraffin-soaked hessian and carrying the superbly crafted galley which will then be ceremoniously burned in the spectacular finale to the day’s events. Dinner this evening is served in a local restaurant, after which we transfer back to our hotels and reflect on what is sure to have been a very colourful and exciting day.
After a leisurely breakfast on Wednesday we depart for a full-day tour which, weather permitting, will take us to the northern isles of Yell and Unst. We travel north through Tingwall and Girlsta and past the oil terminal at Sullom Voe, which has transformed life in Shetland over the last 25 years, before arriving at Toft, where the ferry departs for the island of Yell.
After a 15-minute crossing we travel across Yell to Gutcher at the north end of the island. After a refreshment stop we make another short ferry crossing to the island of Unst and drive north to Baltasound, our lunch stop. We continue northwards again, (about as far north as it is possible to travel by coach in the British Isles) and enjoy the marvellous views from Saxavord Hill.
Our return route takes us via East Yell and Burravoe. Back at Lerwick we rejoin our ship, which sails at 5.30pm for Aberdeen, and once again enjoy dinner on board. After breakfast on board we disembark in Aberdeen at around 9am on Thursday.
We offer a choice of two hotels. The Busta House Hotel, situated at Busta Voe, north of Lerwick, dates back to 1588, with a colourful history that includes tales of family feuds, secret marriages and tragic events. Today, the hotel offers all modern conveniences and comfortable, individually decorated bedrooms. The bar features a selection of around 160 malt whiskies and an open peat fire, just the place to relax in the evening. Please note the hotel does not have a lift or ground-floor rooms and may not be suitable for those with limited mobility.
In contrast, the Shetland Hotel is located opposite the ferry terminal in Lerwick, within walking distance of the town centre, making it the ideal base for those wish to enjoy the Up Helly Aa festivities to the full. This modern, purpose-built hotel is notable for its spacious, comfortable rooms (supplement applies).
The festival is so popular, that many of the hotels on Shetland struggle to cope with demand. Early booking is recommended!
If you would like more
information – please call us for a brochure on 01224 338004 and quote the tour code AB094.
For bookings, please call 01334 657155 and quote PRESS & JOURNAL to secure your place.