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?
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.
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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