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Shetland’s Viking Fire Festival - Up Helly Aa

A 24-Hour Party and Europe's Biggest Fire Spectacular


Up Helly Aa in Shetland

Locals dressed as Vikings march through the streets of Lerwick for the traditional festival of fire is known known as 'Up Helly Aa'.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
  • What: Europe’s biggest Fire Festival, and Shetland’s excuse for a 24 hour party.
  • When: The last Tuesday in January, from early in the day and through the night.
  • Where: Lerwick, the main port of the Shetland Islands
  • Admission: Free
  • Website

A Viking Party Like No Other

Shetland, part of Norway for at least 500 years, has a rich Viking heritage and one thing the Vikings seemed to do well was throw a wild party. Viking sagas are full of stories of raids and marauding, followed by lots of drinking and celebrating.

Back in the 19th century, that the "Viking" taste for wild partying at Christmas became something of a problem so, in 1870, a group of locals created a festival to channel all those high spirits in true Viking fashion.

Up Helly Aa has been going strong ever since. It is a 24 hour party that includes costumed Viking events throughout the day and culminates in a torchlight parade and the burning of a Viking long boat.

The galley, that is sent to a flaming inferno at sea, may have taken local Up Helly Aa associations four months or more to build. At least 5,000 spectators come to watch more than 1,000 torch carrying "Vikings", in silver plates and helmets, with heavy axes and shields, march the galley around the town. Some enact the roles of famous "Jarls" from the local saga, the Orkneyinga. At the climax, all the Vikings throw their flaming torches into the galley - quite a spectacle in itself. The whole crowd sings Viking songs and the party continues long after the last flames have died away.

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