Yup! “Up Helly Aa” is a fierce as it looks! Hoards of angry Vikings and their burning ships surround the Shetland Islands on an annual basis – bringing mayhem for the local community that just cant get rid of those pesky Vikings… Or so I assume if we had lived 1,200 years ago! 🙂 Well, thankfully, the age of angry and chaotic vikings has long since passed – but the tradition of  “Up Helly Aa” has stayed as strong as ever!

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When does “Up Helly Aa” start?

For hundreds of years, The Shetland Islands in Scotland have continually celebrated Up Helly Aa around mid-winter time. In the last few decades this has been on 28th January – signifying the end of the yule season (which is the traditional Scottish Christmas period). I can’t think of a more useful way to burn off those extra Christmas-induced calories than by hauling a 4 ton Viking boat around some islands! 😉

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What do “Vikings” do at this festival?

Thousands of participants known as guizers take to the streets of many of the main towns in the Shetlands to celebrate this awesome tradition! Every single year a new Viking vessel is built and produced (especially for Up Helly Aa) – by local residents – who, during the festival, become fondly known as The Jarl Squad!

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During the twilight hours on the 28th of January the excitement begins to mount! Thousands of traditional torches are lit and fires burn across the islands. Locals and visitors are welcome to partake (responsibly) in the event – which makes it an amazing experience for all involved. Each of the “squads” that partake in the event regularly choose a them for themselves, some; scary, some funny, some traditional – it all depends on the individual group!

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After the town becomes a-blaze with excitement, the ship is dragged to its final resting place where traditional Up Helly Aa songs are sung. Finally, and for you “pyromaniac Vikings” – the whole town throws their torches into the vessel! Setting the whole boat and festival-spirit alight!

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What to drink at Up Helly Aa…

Be prepared for the brisk and chilly Scottish winter with a warm Scottish tipple! After a few hours of singing the “hot-toddys”  begin to flow! A piping hot cocktail of traditional Scotch whiskey, hot water, lashings of honey, cinnamon and lemon juice. Residents and visitors take to the various halls to celebrate together – sometimes inside, sometimes in the streets! 🙂

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How to get there…

Up Helly Aa is a great way to experience a truly authentic tradition in Scotland! Although the Shetland Islands are some 600 miles or so north of London (the same distance as flying to Milan from London) – there are many ways to get there. From direct flights from London, to a ferry journey from Aberdeen or Orkney. The Shetland Isles can also be a stop on some Nordic cruise ship excursions.

Don’t fret if you can’t make it to The Shetlands the local government streams the whole tradition live on their website – a perfect way to see the festival from your warm snuggly bed! 🙂

Don’t Forget…

No visit to the Shetland Isles would be complete without saying hello to their most famous inhabitants. Shetland Ponies of-course! They are adorably cute and even more cuddly when they are wearing jumpers! 🙂 This native breed is a must-see! Cuteness overload! 🙂

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Read More: The Complete Guide To Exploring The Highlands Of Scotland! 


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  • Hardy and Hay

    This look so cool! Anywhere combining cold weather,beautiful scenery and some good (viking!) history sounds like my idea of perfection! It’s so great that you guys have discovered this, and by the way, we LOVE the variety of content you post! I’m sure it doesn’t come easy to try covering so many things, but just wanted you to know it hasn’t gone unnoticed!

    I should have heard about this festival..I’m half Scottish and my ancestors are from the Outer Hebrides…I feel a calling to ‘return home’ and take part in this! 😉

    Hope you have a great day!


    • HandLuggageOnly

      Thanks Flora! We’re really pleased to hear that! ? That’s made my morning!
      And yes, you do need a ‘homecoming’ of some sort! This sounds like one to fit that bill!

  • Why couldn’t it be sooner? I don’t have enough vacation time to be in Scotland for a month. I wish! Maaaaaaaaann.

    • HandLuggageOnly

      Aawww shucks!!! Maybe next time? ?

  • Gosh, this seems so cool! I think I will get it as a Christmas present for my mother. I wanted to take her to the area anyway because she loves a a rough see and a green landscape and this seems like a unique experience! Thank you for this great idea!

    Happiness Treasures // http://www.happiness-treasures.blogspot.com

    • HandLuggageOnly

      You’re welcome Stefanie!!! If your Mum is a fun of those landscapes, I think getting her a trip here would indeed be perfect!

  • I love the contrast of the Shetland Ponies in sweaters and fire happy Vikings! Amazing!

    • HandLuggageOnly

      Haha! You’re so right!

  • Amazing Photos! 🙂

    Joy Della Vita Travelblog

    • HandLuggageOnly

      It’s such a stunning visual fest isn’t it?

  • Thank you so much for featuring Up Helly Aa. This is definitely one of the festivals I’m eager to see this year!

    • HandLuggageOnly

      Nice! You’ve gotta share your experience (with lots of photos) once you’ve been!

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