Up Helly Aa – a different kind of tradition

TL Dallas provides insurance solutions for a diverse range of clients all over the UK.  One of our more unusual risks is for Up Helly Aa; an annual event which takes place in Lerwick, Shetland and involves a series of marches and visitations, culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a Galley.

We spoke to Ivor Cluness, the 2014 Guizer Jarl, to learn more about this annual tradition, which takes place on the last Tuesday in January.

A tradition that originated in the 1880s, Up Helly Aa evolved from the burning of tar barrels that were part of festive celebrations from around the 1840s. 

A group of young Lerwick men devised a series of new ideas for the proceedings, including the name Up Helly Aa. The elaborate element of disguise – “guizing” – was brought to the new festival, along with the torchlight procession and a little later, towards the end of the 1880s, the burning of the ‘Galley’ – a Viking long ship – was introduced. 

Today, not much has changed since those early days. Celebrations consist of a ‘Guizer Jarl’, the Chief Guizer and his squad, plus another 46 squads taking part in the event.  There is also a junior squad who attend an earlier procession and even have their own Galley.

The Jarl Squad start their day early, around 6am, with a meeting followed by breakfast.  They then march along the streets stopping at the Bill.

The first ‘Bill’ was produced in 1899. Its main purpose was to indicate where and when the festival would take place. However, it was soon elaborated with the addition of local jokes and satire, usually at the expense of the Guizer Jarl.  The bill head, painted each year by a local artist chosen by the Jarl, usually depicts a scene from the Jarl’s saga. From here, the Jarl Squad head to the Bressay Ferry Terminal for photos, followed by a civic reception. Throughout the rest of the morning and early afternoon there are a series of visits to the Primary Schools, Hospitals and Retirement Homes, as well as a visit to The Shetland Museum.

Around 7.00pm, the Guizer Jarl Squad passes up the ranks of the Guizers before the world famous torchlit procession commences.  Consisting of nearly one thousand Guizers, the procession carry flaming torches through the town, following the Galley along the route towards its fiery end at Valhalla. The route is lined with spectators, often over five thousand strong. The town is in darkness, making the red glow at ‘light up’ a truly phenomenal sight. The procession will march along the route before finishing in the (enclosed) burning site* at the King George V playing field.

Following this, each of the squads, visit all the local halls to put on their entertainment, involving much hilarity, throughout the night.  Each squad has a theme which is generally reflected in both their costume and their chosen entertainment. There is a specific order of attendance at each hall which must be strictly adhered to.

Partying continues throughout the night with the following day marked as a public holiday. You can read more about this spectacular event at www.shetland.org/things/events/culture-heritage/up-helly-aa/ or visit the official website, www.uphellyaa.org.


TL Dallas is proud to have been working with Up Helly Aa for more than 20 years and we’d be delighted to discuss insurance solutions for your next event.  Contact your Account Executive or local TL Dallas office for more information.

*public access is not permitted. 

Posted by Pippa Dougherty | Friday, February 23rd, 2018 Back to News
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