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Up Helly Aa: Despite still being a year out and on the back of two cancellations, Viking tradition of islanders still burns strong

The galley ahead of the burning of the galley, during the Up Helly Aa Viking festival.
The galley ahead of the burning of the galley, during the Up Helly Aa Viking festival.

January 31, 2023.

The date etched on most Shetlanders’ calendars with the most prominence.

That is because, despite facing cancellation twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is still hope and optimism about the next instalment of the famed fire festival in Lerwick.

The capital hosts the largest of the Norse tradition to mark the end of the Yule season, with others taking place across the year in different locations.

Twice cancelled

The 2021 instalment was delayed due to the pandemic, with an early decision made to halt this year’s (2022) from going ahead.

Organisers said: “There isn’t sufficient time to run the event in its normal format”.

However, despite the delay and cancellations, the Viking heritage of islanders still burns strong.

Squads in fancy dress line the streets as the Viking heritage of Shetland burns strong

Malcolm Bell, convener of Shetland Islands Council, said: “I do not underestimate the importance of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa festivals to many folk both at home and further afield.

“This is the second year of cancellation and whilst in the circumstances it is understandable we look forward to their return, hopefully in 2023.

“They are much more than a one night party; the organisation takes months and that in itself is a community effort.

“Up Helly Aa has faced cancellations in the past, perhaps most notably during the two world wars and came back so I have no doubt that, once it’s safe to do so, the festivals will return and provide, again, a focus for the community and an attraction to people from far and wide.”

Festival provides great financial boost to Shetland

The festival also provides a great boost to the local economy, in excess of £600,000 each year.

Steve Mathieson, VisitScotland‘s development manager, said: “Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa is a world-famous and very unique festival and vitally important for attracting visitors to Shetland during the quieter winter months.

“Although there are no specific figures for visitor numbers attending, we can make a reasonable estimate based on the 2019 Shetland Visitor Survey, where 3% of leisure visitors quoted Up Helly Aa as the highlight of their trip, equating to more than 1,225 tourists.

“With an average spend per leisure visitor of around £520 per trip, the value of Lerwick Up Helly Aa to the Shetland visitor economy would therefore be in excess of £637,000.”

The festival attracts thousands of visitors each year

Mr Mathieson continued: “With international travel being off the agenda for many tourists currently, destinations like Shetland that are off the beaten track and offer wide open spaces, fresh air and authentic community experiences like Up Helly Aa, are becoming increasingly popular to a wider range of visitors on a year-round basis.”

Steeped in tradition

The festival dates back to the 1870s.

It is said that a group of young men wanted to deliver new ideas to the islands Christmas celebrations.

Traditionally preparations begin in February with the Guizer Jarl and his squad determining the design and production of their outfits.

Many hours go into their creation with the theme a closely guarded secret until the days events.

Guizer Jarl Stewart Jamieson with wife Elaine at Up Helly Aa in Shetland.<br />Picture by Colin Rennie, January 30, 2018.

From May to September, an exhibition is run in the Galley Shed by the Up Helly Aa committee.

A full size galley (boat) is put on display, along with previous jarl squad’s suits and accessories.

In early September, the guizers of the remaining 46 squads begin their own preparations, hosting squad meetings.

It is here where their suits are determined and their act, performed in halls across Lerwick, is perfected.

At the end of September, the galley shed is transformed back into to a working shed.

During the winter, the new galley and torches are constructed in preparation for the next festival.

During this same period, the committee progress preparations including the creation of the collecting sheet and bill.

A new galley is carefully crafted each year and paraded through Lerwick before it later meets it fate in flames

Event has been cancelled before

The event has been shifted and postponed before.

In 1965, Up Helly Aa was postponed one week because of Winston Churchill’s death.

All going well, should no further major restrictions be implemented, torches and the galley will burn long into the night on Tuesday January 31, 2023.

Up Helly Aa 2020

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