The Up Helly Aa Torch Procession – 2013

So remember how I was telling you about the beautiful weather during the Vikings’ morning procession for Up Helly Aa? And we were so happy to see clear skies with nearly no wind? And how we thought it would be a beautiful night for the torch procession that evening?

Ya, no.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, at about 4pm all hell broke loose.

The sun went down and things got wild!

The trees were whipping about, the wind was howling through the streets, small dogs and children were being blown right over (probably).

And then the rain! The rain made so much noise as it battered our windows that I swear I thought it was going to shatter them.

Were we going to wimp out and watch it through our bedroom window? Were we going to stay dry and warm while the Vikings braved the weather with their torches? No way! We came all this way through months of planning and twenty four solid hours of travel to get to the Shetland Islands to see a fire festival, and By Gosh we were going to see one!

We put on all our many layers of clothing, hats, scarves, gloves and anything else we could wrap ourselves in, ran out the door and two blocks up the street to secure our place on the wall. We had to get there early or we’d be too far back in the crowd to get a really good view of the fun.

Forty five minutes.

Have you ever stood forty five minutes in a lashing, sideways, freezing rain that soaked right through your clothes within minutes? And stood there, and stood there, and stood there?

I tell you we have a whole new appreciation for waterproof jackets and the body heat generated by a crowd of strangers huddled up together.

But we got our spot!


And then finally, they started the Up Helly Aa torch procession at the Town Hall just up the hill. There were nearly a thousand men, including the Jarl Squad we’d seen earlier in the day, led by the Guizer Jarl himself who wore his raven winged helmet as he stood in his ship. Each one carried a torch, and when they lit them all it looked like the city was on fire. The red glow behind the stone skyline was beautiful. I would show you a photo but I was too busy trying not to freeze to death or soak my camera to get one. Sorry.


But I got pictures of the rest! The squads marched behind the Guizer’s boat in the whipping wind, winding through the streets of Lerwick and finally circling the park which would shortly be the center of everyone’s attention.

Up Helly Aa Flames


First they circled outside the park walls and right along the streets where we were standing.


Then they entered the park and circled the inside of the walls. One thousand men with burning torches walked by us and we cheered every one of them on. Aaaaaayy!


More, and more, and more kept pouring in. As they made their way around the park and up the middle they started a slow spiral around the beautiful ship. The Guizer Jarl stayed at the helm until every last man and every last torch was finally in place, swirling around and around like a flaming whirlpool.


The ice cold wind was still howling and the sparks were being carried half way down the lane. The swirl of Vikings was growing.


The crowd was starting to get rowdy! The squads were struggling to keep all the torches lit in the gale!


The excitement was building!


The Guizer Jarl stepped down from his boat and the signal was given. Burn it down!


That swirling circle of a thousand men carrying flaming torches moved in, and one-by-one they threw their torches into the boat. The boat that had taken master builders a year to plan and build.


The rain stopped falling as the torches started piling higher and higher, and the flames grew bigger and wilder with each new gust.


It was only a few minutes before the pile of torches was as tall as the dragon boat’s head.


And even from seventy yards away, even with the howling wind carrying the flames down the field, we could feel the heat of the flames. Barely.


The crowd shivered and cheered as the head was finally engulfed, and the mast started to bow to the wind.


Tradition says it’s not over until the head at the prow of the boat has fallen, so we stayed and watched it burn down. I have never been to a more exciting festival in my life. The sense of anticipation all day, leading up to the culmination of the flames swallowing that ship was incredible.


The community that makes it happen every single year have created a masterpiece once again. As we watched the boat burn down to a pile of glowing wreckage we were blown away (almost literally) by the spectacle, and so grateful to have been a part of it this year.


When all that was left was a small pile of flaming sticks we walked away and left it behind.

Later that night our hostess told us she felt bad that the weather had been so horrible for us, and thought it would have been better if the weather was good. We disagreed! Life in the Shetlands can be notoriously harsh. The strength of the people who have survived and thrived there for close to five thousand years is evident when you look at all they had to do just to hang on to that rock. The storm during the night of Up Helly Aa almost felt like it was planned, just to show us how harsh things can be, and exactly what the people of the islands are celebrating.

We were wet, frozen and half numb with the cold, but when it was all over we felt like we had not only witnessed an amazing and meaningful celebration of life in the Shetlands, we felt like we survived it!



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About akil3655

A Scotsman and his American photographer wife traveling the world and writing about it. Tales, reviews, photos, interviews and crazy goings on. Because you never know what's going to happen.

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42 Responses to The Up Helly Aa Torch Procession – 2013

  1. Tiaras & Tantrums February 2, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    wow – what an amazing even to watch! and to get to snap off some photos too!
    Tiaras & Tantrums recently posted..Beautiful Shadow PhotographyMy Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 2, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

      I loved photographing it! Even if I had to hide my camera inside my jacket between snaps because of the storm. It’s all part of the adventure!

  2. Carol L McKenna February 2, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Wow! What an event! Never heard of it ~ Wonderful post and fantastic photography! Thanks so much for being there!

    Carol of: A Creative Harbor
    Carol L McKenna recently posted..Sunday Sketches, Poetry and PhotographyMy Profile

  3. pat February 2, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    This is an amazing event – rain or not – fabulous tradition!

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 2, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

      It really was. If you ever have a chance, get up to see it! Highly recommended.

  4. Candy C. February 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    Oh WOW!! I’m soooo jealous! What a neat, neat celebration and thank you for all the wonderful photos! I loved seeing the sparks flying in the wind! Gotta love them Vikings!! :)
    Candy C. recently posted..Photo Art Friday – MinimalistMy Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 2, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

      Thanks, Candy! I still can’t believe we actually got to go! If you ever have a chance, go see it. The island is beautiful (even in January), the people are fantastic and the festival is beyond cool. Storm or not!

  5. Karen February 3, 2013 at 4:28 am #

    Fabulous photos. Well worth the discomfort I would say!
    Karen recently posted..FlakeyMy Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      Thank you, Karen! That’s what I was hoping for!

  6. Coombemill - Fiona February 3, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Definitely worth getting there early for these incredible pictures! It must have been an amazing atmosphere too. Hopefully the torches kept you warm?!
    Coombemill – Fiona recently posted..Silent Sunday / Project 52My Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      Thanks, Fiona! I wish the torches kept us warm! It was way too cold and the wind was blowing way too hard to feel any heat at all from them. We could only feel a tiny bit of heat from the ship while it was fully engulfed, and even that was barely anything. Brrr!

  7. Jaime Oliver February 3, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    what amazing pictures!!!
    Jaime Oliver recently posted..Week 5 – My Week That Was (Project 365)My Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

      Thank you, Jaime. :)

  8. Marty February 3, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    That is just amazing.

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

      Thank you, Marty. It really was. :)

  9. Nancy February 3, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Although your images are inspiring, it would have been doubly so being there to see! :)
    Nancy recently posted..A Rural Journal: {Balancing Act}My Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

      Thank you, Nancy. It really was!

  10. HPMcQ February 3, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    amazing photos, what an evening!
    HPMcQ recently pix 02-03.02.13My Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

      Thank you!

  11. Emma
    Twitter: emsyjo
    February 3, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Wow, sounds like a brilliant thing to watch and well done for getting such amazing photos of it.
    Emma recently posted..365 Project – Week 5My Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

      Thank you, Emma! I’m glad I got some good shots through all that stormy craziness!

  12. jeanne stone February 3, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    What amazing shots these are of what must have been an incredible thing to watch and think of the history of this ceremony. good for you going out in the rain. Some of my best times have been doing things in bad weather

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks, Jeanne! I agree, some of the best shots I’ve seen are taken in terrible conditions. A bit of rain adds to the drama. ;) I’m just happy I got some good ones.

  13. OneDad3Girls
    Twitter: onedad3girls
    February 3, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    Fantastic photos, I can never get bonfire night photos right but these look amazing
    OneDad3Girls recently posted..#SilentSunday – 3rd FebMy Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 3, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

      Thanks! This was my first time shooting fire with this camera (Sony Nex7) and I’m really happy with its performance, especially under such wild and stormy conditions. I used a high ISO, not too fast of a shutter speed (about 4.5) and expose for the flame. There was some post processing, mostly a bit of sharpening and a bit of a white balance adjustment. I’m really happy with how they turned out.
      akil3655 recently posted..365 Photo Challenge – Week 5My Profile

  14. Anne (Cornucopia) February 3, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    Great sequence of photos! I felt like I was there.
    Anne (Cornucopia) recently posted..Moon Through Pine Tree – PhotographsMy Profile

  15. Madge @ The View From Right Here
    Twitter: MadgeBloom
    February 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    LOVED this post, what an exciting (dare I say bone chilling) event… I especially love the shot of the dragon head going up in flames… I shared your post on Google +… I’m so glad you came by to share on Weekly Top Shot #68!
    Madge @ The View From Right Here recently posted..Intersect – Weekly Top Shot #68My Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      Madge, thank you so much for the compliments and the share. Bone chilling is right! lol
      I love your Weekly Top Shot linkup, thanks for hosting!
      akil3655 recently posted..365 Photo Challenge – Week 5My Profile

  16. emily February 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    How exciting! The imagery to go with the story was fun to read!
    emily recently posted..35/365 Fat LipMy Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 4, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

      Thanks, Emily!

  17. Inside Cambodia February 6, 2013 at 4:46 am #

    What a very interesting tradition! Thank you for letting us see this part of your world :)
    Inside Cambodia recently posted..APAD 085: Resting placeMy Profile

  18. Life with Kaishon February 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    This was so incredibly fascinating. What a wonderful experience it must have been to watch this! WOW!
    Life with Kaishon recently posted..Mysel’s Family :: “I sustain myself with the love of family.” Maya AngelouMy Profile

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      February 7, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

      Thanks! It was amazing. :)

  19. TheBoyandMe February 7, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

    The fifth photo with the sparks flying is completely gorgeous. Such vibrancy!

    Thanks for linking up.
    TheBoyandMe recently posted..Small World: Beach PlayMy Profile

  20. Joanne Blunt February 9, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    That is worth the wind and rain. Amazing photos. So beautiful.
    Joanne Blunt recently posted..Project 365: Days 27 – 33My Profile

  21. Mar October 9, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Peg, I’ve never seen this – it’s fabulous. You really captured the tone and excitement of the night, and I felt as if I was there. Your pictures are spectacular. The dragon head being engulfed should be framed. What a wonderful adventure!

    • akil3655
      Twitter: kiltandacamera
      October 9, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      Thanks, Mar! It really was an amazing night.


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