Up Helly Aa | Brief History

Up Helly Aa is Europe's largest viking fire festival and unique to the Shetland Isles. Shetland's famous fiery spectacle, Up Helly Aa, is an event steeped in culture and history that established itself on the islands' event calendar at the end of the 19th century.  Held annually on the last Tuesday in January - no matter the weather - the celebrations draw many thousands of locals and visitors from far and wide.

Up Helly Aa Burning

The day begins with the Guizer Jarl (the main figure of the day) and his Jarl Squad marching through the town centre in traditional viking attire to the Market Cross, where they will receive a roaring welcome from locals, visitors and the torch makers. The purpose of this visit is to view the Bill (proclamation), sing the festival’s praises and give three cheers.  The thirty-foot galley ship will then be transported through the town to the Alexandra Wharf, where its intricate craftmanship and fine detail can be admired throughout the day until it is hauled to the burning site later in the evening. The Guizer Jarl has freedom of the town all day, during which he and his squad visit many of the local schools, care centres and the Shetland Museum, as well as attending a civic reception in the Lerwick Town Hall.


It is at night that the event really comes into its own.  Preceded by the junior procession (at 5.30pm), the main event sees over 900 guizers in fancy dress assemble to receive torches for the main light up.  The Jarl Squad then leads the senior procession (at 7.30pm) with the Jarl at the helm of the galley as they march through the streets of Lerwick.  Through the town, they sing and pay homage to a tradition that is firmly in their hearts.  The march finishes as they circumvent the galley (now at its final resting place) and await the sounding of a bugle, which signals the time where their torches are thrown into the longship to form a roaring fire.  The fire rages and the galley fades until nothing remains.

This is not the end of the night, but only the beginning.  For the next 12 hours, these guizers will visit a number of public halls to perform a carefully-rehearsed act and dance.  Funnily enough, the following day is a public holiday to give everyone a chance to recover, until next year!


Images of Up Helly Aa cover the festival from 2009 onwards.  With the exception of 2012 as I was a member of the jarl squad this year. Also 2016 was not covered due to illness.

  • 2019 Guizer Jarl John Nicolson (Thorstein Egilsson)

  • 2018 Guizer Jarl Stewart Jamieson (Thorvald Thorvaldsson)

  • 2017 Guizer Jarl Lyall Gair (Sweyn 'Forkbeard' Haraldsson)

  • 2016 Guizer Jarl Mark Evans (Solmund Sigurdsson)

  • 2015 Guizer Jarl Neil Robertson (Olav Haraldsson)

  • 2014 Guizer Jarl Ivor Cluness (Ivar the Boneless)

  • 2013 Guizer Jarl Stephen Grant (Gamle Eriksson)

  • 2012 Guizer Jarl David Nicolson (Bothvar Egilsson)

  • 2011 Guizer Jarl John Hunter (Johan Sanderrevet of Valsgarde)

  • 2010 Guizer Jarl Rae Simpson (Sigurd "Snake-Eye" Ragnarsson)

  • 2009 Guizer Jarl Stephen Mouat (Othere Fra Halogaland)

See uphellyaa.org and uphellyaa.com for further information.

Shetland Isles, North of Scotland, UK