San Diego Scottish Highland Games

2024 Highland Games June 22-23

2024 Highland Games June 22-23

What is the festival, Up Helly Aa?

The boat burning festival of Up Helly Aa

Every society and region has its own culture and traditions. The richest of Scottish traditions come through during the holidays when people are in high spirits. Scottish holidays are traditionally different from other global days and events. These holidays not only show tourists the real Scotland but also take the Scots back to their roots.

The region of Scotland has had strong Gaelic and Celtic influences, which have shaped traditional Scottish holidays. Among the many Scottish holidays and festivals, the Up Helly Aa festival is one. It is a very interesting festival that has roots in the Viking traditions and Norse Mythology. 

Up Helly Aa – what does it mean?

The name Up Helly Aa stems from the Norse word, Uppi- which means at an end. The other part of the name stems from Helly, which stands for Holy Day. Up Helly Aa is a holiday that stands for the end of all holidays in the Scottish calendar. The festival is part of the series of festivals held as an end of Yule celebration for people. The festival is the most significant of these series of events held in the Shetland Islands. The Up Helly Aa celebration is the largest and grandest of these Viking-inspired celebrations.

When we say Vikings, we do not refer to the popular TV series based on the warrior race. We refer to real Viking warriors. Therefore, there is a lot of merry-making and boat burning involved. The present form of Up Helly Aa only traces back to 1876. Before that, there was a tradition of tar barreling.

In the previous traditions, the young men of Shetland Islands would drag burning barrels through the streets in mass. This would often lead to a drunken pandemonium that needed law and order to intervene.

In the present form, the Up Helly Aa is presided over by the Guizer Jarl or King, who acts as the Viking Head of the tribe for a day. The Guizer Jarl and his volunteers plan and arrange the festival on a large scale. Since the Shetlands Islands have a history of Viking expeditions, the festival heavily draws inspiration from it. The first version of Up Helly Aa in its present glory was celebrated in 1881. Up Helly Aa gained the reputation of being a major festival in Scotland with the visit of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in the year 1882 to witness it.

On the day of the festival, on the last Tuesday of January of every year, the Guizer Jarl and his men march around the city of Lerwick in a procession. They also visited many schools and institutions during this march and attended small functions. They then visit the Market Cross, where they read out the Bill with jokes and satire is read.

On the evening of the festival, the guizers and Guizer Jarl meet to burn a thirty-foot galley as a sign. Before the grand galley is burnt with a fierce wheel of fire, the residents also take part in the procession in fancy dress. The burning of the boat is a magnificent event after which people go on to celebrate and make merry.

If you wish to see the spectacular Up Helly Aa in action, then a visit to Scotland in the first month of the year is a must!  

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