Up-Helly-Aa is an annual Scottish holiday that is inspired by the land’s history and a Viking celebration. It is usually held in the middle of Winter to mark the end of the Yule season.
Up-Helly-Aa is a holiday which literally means “Up Holy Day All.” Based on the book “Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language” published in 1818 by John Jamieson, “Up” is used in the sense of something being at an end. It is derived from the Old Norse word “uppi” which is still used in Faroese and Icelandic. The Scottish National Dictionary defines “Helly” as “Holy day or festival” and stated that it is probably derived from the Old Norse “Helgr” or “Helgi” in the dative and accusative case. “Aa” represent as “all.”
It refers to any variety of fire festivals held annually in the middle of winter to mark the end of the yule season in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. The event happens all over Shetland and is currently celebrated at ten locations such as Scalloway, Lerwick, Nesting and Girlsta, Uyeasound, Northmavine, Bressay, Cullivoe, Norwick, the South Mainland, and Delting.
This fiery holiday is celebrated with a variety of fire festivals that starts with a torch procession of hundreds of people dressed in themed costumes. It involves a torch procession of up to a thousand people in Lerwick. It is considerably lower in number in the more rural festivals who form into squads and march through the town or village in a variety of people dressed in themed costumes. The holiday ends with the throwing of the fires into a Viking ship replica.
The honorary role of the “Jarl” meant as the “chieftain” was introduced to the festival in the early twentieth century. There is a main guizer who is dubbed as the Jarl. There is also a committee in which a person must be part of for 15 years before one can be a jarl, and only one person is elected to this committee each year.
The current celebration in Lerwick grew out of the older yule tradition of tar barreling which usually took place at Christmas and New Year as well as Up-Helly-Aa. Group of young men is making mischief who would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sleds. The development in the celebration was led by concerns over public safety and levels of drunkenness. The incident brought inspiration to the Viking history of the islands. The permission for torch processions was eventually obtained after the abolition of tar barreling around 1874–1880.
The first yule torch procession was in 1876. The first torch celebration on Up-Helly-Aa Day was celebrated in 1881. A Lerwick civic body requested to hold another Up-Helly-Aa torch procession for the visit of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh in 1882 so the torchlit procession was improved and institutionalized. The first replica of Viking longship or galley was introduced and burned in 1889.
The procession culminates in the torches being thrown into a galley. The squads visit local buildings including schools, sports facilities, and hotels where private parties are held after the procession. Each squad performs its act like a skit on local events or singing or dancing at each hall.
Up-Helly-Aa is a celebration that came from ancient history. The celebration might be a little dangerous with the use of fire but it is a great way to be connected again from the past.