A year of hoping, months of poking around for information, a dozen phone calls, frantic internet searches for tickets and accommodation, some ups and downs during the course of planning, and finally we were there!
I first heard of Up Helly Aa a year ago when Adventurous Kate wrote about her experience. I knew right away that I wanted to go, and I quickly realized it would fit nicely during an already-hoped-for trip to Scotland when we planned to bring my daughter over for her 19th birthday. Not everyone is lucky enough to have their birthday on a national holiday, so we had to find a way to get her to Edinburgh to celebrate Burns Night. We still lived in Brazil when we started planning this and didn’t even know that we’d be living in the UK at the time. It must be fate that we get up to the festival. The plans couldn’t have come together any better than they did, except for one big detail. About a month before the big day, Brian found out he’d be in Brazil on business.
The trip then turned into a mother-daughter adventure.
Do you know about Up Helly Aa?
In short, it’s a Viking fire festival held to celebrate the end of the Yule season on the Shetland Islands. There are several of them held around the islands, but Lerwick’s festival is the largest and most well known.
I’ll write about the ship burning festival tomorrow, but to start with I’ll introduce you to the Jarl Squad and their doomed ship.
The day leading up to the torch procession starts early. The hand painted Bill is posted in the market square some time during the night. In the morning the Jarl Squad marches their way to the square where the Guizer Jarl will read the proclamation.
My Girl and I made our way to the market square along with a quickly growing crowd to watch the fun.
The square grew more and more crowded, and before long we heard the band playing and repeated shouts of “Aaaaaaayy!” headed our way.
And here they come!
There are a few ‘peerie’ members of the Jarl Squad (Peerie is a Shetland word meaning ‘small’) who looked like they were having an absolute blast.
The whole squad circles the market square, shouting “Aaaaayy!” over and over as the band plays on. Once they’re in place they sing a traditional Up Helly Aa song.
Do you ever have one of those moments? When everything comes together and you’re standing right where you hoped you’d be, experiencing something utterly cool and it’s better than you even imagined? And your eyes might leak a little bit?
The singing of that song, surrounded by vikings in the Lerwick town square on the very remote Shetland Islands, standing next to my Girl in the middle of winter.
Well… My eyes may have leaked a little bit.
And I don’t think I was the only one. I think everyone felt it, and if you can judge by the looks on all those faces then you know the emotions were running high. Aaaaaayy!
We followed the music and the crowd through the narrow streets and down to the Bressay Ferry terminal where the squad would pose for photos with their ship.
It was so fun to see the crowds of people lining the streets, spread out over the dock, and peering over the walls on the hill above the terminal just for their first look at the ship. Only a few lucky press members get to see it before it’s finally displayed on festival day.
While the squad arrange themselves in and around the ship, the crowd just kept growing and growing.
Bagpipers joined the brass band and more people lined the streets and the walls.
It was an incredibly beautiful day with no wind, and loads of sunshine. We could hear everyone commenting on how rare and lucky it was to have such great weather.
Yes, it was cold, but it was still a stunning day to be outside watching the events of the day.
I’m quite sure this guy was happy to not have rain falling on his camera and lens that probably cost more than my last car.
All that amazing sunshine meant we all got some great photos of the squad on their ship. With so much sunlight glinting off the armor they really were an impressive sight, and one we were all so excited to see.
I think maybe we all should have kept our mouths shut though. We jinxed that fantastic weather and paid for it after dark when the real fun began. I can’t wait to show you what happened!