Up Helly Aa: What happens at Shetland's Viking fire festival?

Up Helly Aa
The festival reaches its climax with the burning of a Viking galley

Shetland's Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival is taking place in Lerwick - with a new prominence for women at the 143-year-old event.

The festival celebrates the Scottish islands' Norse heritage, culminating in the burning of a replica Viking galley.

The abolition of gender restrictions began last year, when women and girls first took part in the procession.

For the first time, women and girls will now join the main "squad" at the head the procession through the town.

It is an important change to the event which is incredibly important to the people of Shetland.

Up Helly Aa is held on the last Tuesday of every January in Lerwick, the main town in the island group.

Females had been traditionally restricted to participating as "hostesses", a role which involved organising the parties which take place in community halls across the Shetland capital.

The move to open up the procession to all follows a campaign dating back to the 1980s.

Four young women will now form part of the lead group - known as the "Jarl Squad" - wearing full Viking dress.

What happens on the day?

Up Helly Aa
The day begins with the Jarl Squad taking the galley through the town

There are, in fact, 12 Up Helly Aas held across Shetland between January and March, though Lerwick's is the biggest and most spectacular.

Fire festivals celebrate the islands' Viking past with communities coming together for a night of "guizing" (dressing up), burning torches through the streets and enjoying traditional Shetland music.

The festival begins in the morning when the leader of the procession - the Guizer Jarl - leads his squad through the town, dragging the replica galley and singing the Up Helly Aa and Galley Songs.

Up Helly Aa
The squad of vikings marches through Lerwick

They then begin a day of civic receptions and visits to schools, hospitals and homes.

The festival is organised by volunteers and is run by a committee of 17 members elected by the Guizers, with a new member elected every year. To become Guizer Jarl a member must have served 16 years on the committee.

This year's Guizer Jarl is Richard Moar. The 47-year-old engineer has been involved in the festival since 1990.

Where does the fire come in?

Up Helly Aa
The squads include junior groups for Lerwick's young people

Up Helly Aa is most famous for its evening procession, which culminates in the burning of the Viking Galley.

The Guizer Jarl and his squad begin marching at 19:30, a firework marking the start of the ceremony.

The torches are lit and, accompanied by a brass band, to be joined by 46 other squads in assorted fancy dress.

Each Guizer carries a fencing post, covered with sacking material soaked in paraffin.

Up Helly Aa
The galley has been built by the squad and its burning marks the end of the festival

It takes half an hour for the Jarl's squad of Vikings to drag him and his ship to the burning site, through a crowd of more than 5,000 spectators.

When they arrive the Jarl leaves his ship. A bugle is sounded and the torches are hurled into the galley.

As the blaze destroys the shipbuilders' work, the crowd sings the song The Norseman's Home.

The parties will then go on through the night. And just to be sure, the next day is a public holiday in Shetland.

What are the origins of the festival?

Up Helly Aa
More than 5,000 spectators are expected along the route of the procession

As with many such festivals its origins are somewhat obscure and disparate. It comes at the time of year when the days start to lengthen a little after the long winter, a point in the year commonly marked in pagan societies.

But it also has roots in 19th century celebrations centred around Christmas and the new year. These took place in January on the old Julian calendar, which Shetland kept until 1879.

Locals were also said to enjoy rolling barrels of lit tar through the town, a habit banned in 1874.

These elements were brought together by 1881, when today's festival is said to have started.

Since then, only world war, the death of a King and the Covid-19 pandemic have stopped the festival from taking place.

In 2024, with women and girls now fully able to take part in the event, it is a new beginning for Up Helly Aa.