On the last Tuesday of every January, the capital city of Lerwick, on the Scottish main island of Shetland, goes up in flames.
During a celebration
known as Up Helly Aa, costumed men carry nearly 1,000 enormous torches
through the Scottish city’s streets in a procession that ends with the burning of
a Viking-style ship.
festival evolved from early 1800s Christmas Eve and New Year’s celebrations,
when local men would set tar barrels on fire and carry them through the
streets. The celebration was formalized in 1870, when “tar barrelling” was
outlawed, and disguises and torches became the standard participant trappings.
galley ship was not introduced until the 1880s, but heralding Shetland’s
Scandinavian roots has become a key piece of the festivities. The Shetland Islands
were given from Norway to Scotland in the 15th Century as part of a
royal dowry. Playing on Norse tradition, the Up Helly Aa committee annually
selects a Guizer Jarl (the Norse word
for “earl”), who leads the honoured Jarl Squad, whose members dress in full
Viking attire during the procession.
other squads make up the rest of the torch-bearers and most take more liberties
with their costumes. From ballerina tutus to schoolgirl skirts, the common
cross-dressing choices have earned Up Helly Aa the nickname “Transvestite Tuesday”.
Only men who have been residents of
Shetland for at least five years are eligible to belong to a squad and walk the
procession, but all visitors are welcome to watch and take part in the
singing The Norseman’s Home”, the traditional anthem of the festival praising Norse heroes, and throwing their torches on the galley, the
squads retreat to local halls to perform prepared acts and dances. With
festivities lasting well into the morning, Lerwick always recognizes the
following day as a public holiday, giving residents time to recover and start
preparing for next year.