Fire triumphs over snow for spectacular climax to Up Helly Aa

The passion of nearly 1,000 Shetlanders for their Viking heritage burned bright last night for the spectacular climax to Up Helly Aa.

Thousands of people packed the centre of Lerwick to marvel at the atmospheric procession of torches ablaze with fire.

The smell of paraffin hung in the air and smoke mushroomed into the sky from the torches while an expectant crowd waited to watch this year’s green and white galley, the Chloe Barbara, be reduced to cinders in a matter of minutes.

Snow and hail which had battered the morning’s festivities relented by the time Guizer Jarl John Nicholson, who is the 100th person to hold the post, stepped aboard his ship to tour the town centre.

The festival’s figurehead kept a firm hand on the mast rope as the vessel manoeuvred itself through the huge crowds lining the streets.

The 48-year-old was joined for the day by his father Jim, who held the post in 1979 when it also snowed, as well as his brothers Graham and David and his 13-year-old son Bobby.

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Locals remarked the weather for the event was the best in years as the smoke from the torches blew directly upwards in the still night sky while the glow from the heat reflected in the snow.

Nearly 900 guizers in colourful fancy dress followed the Viking squad before the entire crew assembled in the King George V park.

Fearsome calls from the procession were echoed back to them by the crowd who began lining the wall surrounding the park more than three hours before the torches were lit.

A brass fanfare signalled the moment for the guizers to launch their torches at the galley to create a ferocious blaze, which reduced the snow on the ground to a pool of water.

Mr Nicolson described the sight of watching the vessel, which had taken months to build, burn to the ground as the culmination of an incredible day.

He said: “We had a perfect night for it, it was absolutely brilliant. I was so proud to watch all the guizers come into the park, I just wanted to take it all in.

“When you join the committee you’re lucky to get to this stage to see the galley burning. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Fires of age throughout the years 

It’s Shetland’s biggest fire festival and is organised entirely by volunteers all year round, and the majority of these proceedings are said to have remained intact since the 1880’s.

The festivals roots date back to the Napoleonic period when rival groups of Lerwick youths dragged sledges with burning “Tar Barrels” on them through the town, with each squad collecting their barrel secretly weeks in advance.

Special constables were employed to try and prevent these activities, however squad members simply dressed in sacks to disguise themselves and saw this as added excitement.

As the Festival grew in popularity with the guizers, “open” houses proved insufficient for their entertainment, and by 1910 halls were being used as well as houses.

Although the only set in stone Up Helly Aa is Lerwick, there have been a number of occasions that have interrupted proceedings, including the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the War years (1915-19 and 1940-48).

Up Helly Aa has since gone on to level out at around 950 guizers, which is more than triple the amount that took to the streets at the outbreak of the First World War.