Europe’s biggest fire festival blazes across Shetland

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The Viking horde is preparing to invade Scotland next week, as the town of Lerwick makes preparations for Europe’s biggest and most spectacular fire festival.

Up Helly Aa takes over on the last Tuesday of every January all across Shetland, but if you want to see the festival in all its glory, you have to visit Lerwick, the island group’s main city. There, a packed itinerary sees the Jarl Squad visiting museums, schools, hospitals and other public buildings before the night falls and the torches begin to blaze. The torchbearers sing the traditional songs and put on a dazzling performance, but you’d be forgiven for being a little distracted from the impressive choreography when the event climaxes in the torching of a full-scale Viking longboat.

…And then the fun really begins! As the torchbearers and revellers head to local halls after the main event, each squad takes to the stage to perform a dedicated set piece to entertain the crowds, and it would probably be fair to say that more than a little mead is drunk as the night goes on!

It seems that Up Helly Aa is much more than a pagan celebration of the changing of seasons – not that there would be anything wrong with that. After all, I’m planning on partying with the best of ‘em later this year at the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh! But there’s a more modern twist to Up Helly Aa, where squads of torchbearers choose to dress (or ‘guise’) in satirical outfits, with a healthy smattering of men kitted out in drag – leading to the festival’s affectionate local nickname of ‘Transvestite Tuesday!’

If you can’t make it to Shetland for this year’s festival, Lerwick displays suits used in the festival, alongside information and photos of the event’s fiery history, in a dedicated Up Helly Aa exhibition that’s open in the warmer summer months. But if any of you plan to attend, don your best Viking armour and be sure to tell me all about it when you get back. May Odin be with you!

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