Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festival

Heritage, History, Scotland

Up Helly Aa is a famous annual event that celebrates Shetland’s Viking heritage, culminating in the dramatic burning of a replica Viking galley on the last Tuesday in January. It involves a series of marches including a band of latter-day Viking warriors known as the Jarl Squad, and draws visitors from around the world.

buring head

A community event, Up Helly Aa is put together by countless volunteers who plan, design and produce costumes, the galley and the torches. An exhibition runs from May until September in the Galley Shed which shows a full size galley, Jarl Squad suits, various Sqauds memorabilia and a display of photos of past events and costume.

When the exhibition closes in September, the Galley Shed is transformed back into a working shed where the galley and torches are made during the winter.


William “Fejur” Tait (Guizer Jarl 1960) hard at work at the torch making. Photo courtesy of Millgaet Media.

guizer jarl

The Guizer Jarl is the Chief Guizer, the leader of the Jarl Squad who are the Vikings for the day.

Since the birth of the Jarl’s squad in 1920 each year a new shield is designed and manufactured to match in with the costume or highlight the theme which the squad has chosen to represent.


The Morning March
At 8.30am is the first sighting of the Guizer Jarl and Jarl Squad when they march through the town of Lerwick. The squad then march up from the ferry terminal through Fort Charlotte and to a civic reception at the Town Hall where a toast is drunk and the Guizer Jarl is given the freedom of the town for 24 hours.

day procession

Following the reception, the Jarl squad visit the two Lerwick primary schools, the hospital and eventide homes.

A brief stop at 3pm by the squad to the Shetland museum and then an early dinner before the Junior procession which starts at 5.30pm.


The Senior procession begins at 7.15pm where the Guizer Jarls squad pass up the ranks from the back of the procession, who are all in fancy dress, right up to assume their place at the front. At 7.30pm a maroon signals the lighting up and the 900+ senior torches are lit. The procession marches along the traditional route with the Jarl at the helm of his Galley.


They all finish at the burning site of King George V playing field where the Galley is burnt.

burning galley

At 9pm after the burning of the Galley, all the squads reassemble and begin 11 hours of visiting. Halls are opened and welcome guizers with the routine of the squad performing their act, the guiders have a dance with a lady from the hall before saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘Goodnight’, then leaving and repeating at the next hall. Visiting finishes at 8am on Wednesday morning. Wednesday is a public holiday to allow for recovery!

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