Burning excitement spread through Shetland yesterday as dozens of bearded Vikings with a fiery passion for tradition put the finishing touches to the centrepiece of this year’s Up Helly Aa.
Thousands of visitors from all around the world are expected to line the streets of Lerwick this evening for the spectacular fire festival.
The town was ablaze with a festive atmosphere as tourists and residents filled up the pubs and streets, with many decked out in Viking attire.
Members of the official Up Helly Aa committee and volunteers worked fervently at the St Sunniva Street galley shed all throughout yesterday to make sure the impressive Viking galley was prepared for its starring role this evening, where it will be lit up in an enormous blaze by more than a thousand torch-bears.
This year’s galley has been painstakingly painted in shades of blue in honour of this year’s Guizer Jarl Stewart Jamieson.
Ryan Leith, the committee’s galley foreman since 2013, spent yesterday overseeing the final work of the vessel before it is burned to cinders.
Volunteers rushed around the galley, applying special designs featuring the shield of this year’s Guizer Jarl squad, and even trimming the glorious beard of the galley’s fearsome dragon.
Mr Leith, whose father Peter was the Guizer Jarl in 1978, said: “We started building the galley in October, and the painters came in to start their work on it in December, and the boys are just finally finishing it off now.
“We’ve got a really good group of guys that have been working on the galley this year, in total there must be about 30 people that have been involved in the project.
“The design has been the same since the 1950s, a local boat builder created the basic blueprint and every year we make it to the same exact measurements.
“The only things that are different are some of the decorations and the colour, which is decided by the Guzier Jarl, and of course the shields of his jarl squad.
The 45-year-old added: “It’s something that you grow up with in Shetland, this year there’s six of us on the committee who are sons of former Guizer Jarls, including me, so Up Helly Aa is a really important part of all of our lives.
“But it’s not all serious business, we have a lot of fun working together to make this happen.
“It’s maybe hard to explain to people who aren’t used to the festival, but it’s hard to describe the feeling of pride we feel when we see the galley that we’ve put so much work into finally go up in flames.
“It’s just amazing, it really is the best moment of the entire year.”
Every year the festival attracts thousands of visitors from all across the globe.
It was the first trip to Up Helly Aa for Greg Brown and Cable Day, who travelled all the way to Shetland from Utah to take in the Viking celebrations.
Mr Brown, 34 said: “This is my first time at Up Helly Aa, I had no idea what it was but Cable emailed me and told me he had bought us both tickets, and it’s been amazing so far.
“It’s really awesome, and we’re really looking forward to watching them burn the galley.”
Nathalie Olofsson from the island of Gotland in Sweden is also visiting Up Helly Aa for the first time.
As a lover of Norse culture and traditions back home, she said she couldn’t miss the opportunity to see a real Viking festival with her own eyes.
She said: “This is my first time in Scotland, I’ve come with my brother and cousin and we really love it.
“I’m not really a festival person, but if there’s one festival I’ve always wanted to go to it’s Up Helly Aa because I just love everything about Vikings, they are just so cool.”
The Jarl squad will spend the day touring Lerwick, before the main procession commences at 7pm.
Up Helly Aa history
Although up Helly Aa honours the heroes of ancient Viking sagas, the festival itself was born in the 19th century.
Historic records from 1824 say the community of Lerwick staged “uproarious” celebrations on Christmas Eve, and the streets were flooded with revellers.
And, as the town expanded rapidly during the 1800s, Shetlanders began to parade through Lerwick carrying enormous barrels, filled to the brim with burning tar.
But after a few years involving outbreaks of violence between rival groups of “tar barrelers”, residents decided to establish a new festival, aimed at bringing the community together.
The inaugural Up Helly Aa took place around 1870, where the Christmas Eve celebrations were put back until late January, and a torchlight procession led by guizers was incorporated into the celebrations.
But it wasn’t until the 1880s that Viking themes were incorporated into the event and the first replica galley was produced.
The vessel, which forms the centrepiece of the festival, is painstakingly painted every year in the colours and designs of the year’s Guizer Jarl and his squad.
The first ever official Guizer Jarl was appointed to lead Up Helly Aa in 1906, and he was joined by a squad in 1920.
Up Helly Aa has always been the highlight of the year for Shetlanders, but it wasn’t until it was featured in a radio documentary in the 1950s that it rose to international fame.
Today, the major event attracts thousands of visitors from across the globe.