Up Helly Aa: Scotland

A Fiery Tradition

Map of Country

Figure 1. Map of the United Kingdoms , Scotland is the northernmost section of land in the middle. Retrieved from National Geographic Society Xpeditions Atlas. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=grbrit



Up Helly Aa is a Scottish celebration rich with history and excitement. The people of the Shetland Islands of Scotland plan for this celebration of their Viking ancestry for most of the year, and when the last Tuesday of January comes, the ritual is a huge event that a great many Shetlanders participate in. It is a revitalization event that involves sacred acts (the burning of the Viking galley), role reversal (the ‘Guizer Jarl'), and communitas, or a feeling of togetherness within the community.



Figure 2. Scottish children dressed up for the holiday. Retrieved from Festivals.com Up-Helly-Aa. http://www.festivals.com/01-january/uphellyaa/. September 14, 2004 .

Figure 3. A galley before it enters the site to be burned. Retrieved from OrignArt Up-Helly-Aa 2002. http://www.originart2.shetland.co.uk/features/uha2002/enter02.html. September 14, 2004 .


This page is dedicated to describing the Scottish ritual of Up Helly Aa. The celebration helps keep Scottish heritage and ancestry alive. This is similar to what we would call a memorial, since it remembers the rich Scottish past in an attempt to keep the past alive, while still incorporating it into their modern lives. This balance of the old with the new is often a struggle for some societies, and I will explore how the Scots have managed to achieve this balance between new society and revitalization of the past while celebrating Up Helly Aa.


Context of Scotland

Scotland is located in the northern part of what is called the United Kingdom . Great Britain , Ireland , and, of course, Scotland , are the major countries that make up the United Kingdom . Scotland is located between about the 55 o N and 60 o N latitudes and also between about the 8 o W and 0 o longitudes (see Figure 1). Scotland, being as far north as it is, seems like it should be colder than it is, but it is protected by the Gulf Stream, which makes the country's climate slightly warmer (Scotland.com). The geography of Scotland ranges from mountainous to lowlands. The country has many inlets from the sea, the larger of which are called firths. Scotland and England are separated by rough highlands, in which many battles have been fought throughout history. Scotland struggled to keep its independence from England until 1707 when the countries joined to form Great Britain (The Geography of Scotland). The Shetland Islands , where this celebration specifically takes place is located to the northeast of the Scottish mainland.


Origins of Up Helly Aa

The name Up Helly Aa originates from “up finished” and the Scottish form of holiday, “haliday”, since the celebration marks the end of the Yule Holiday (Harris). The exact historical origins of Up Helly Aa are not known, but it is thought to have begun as a celebration for the end of the Yule season in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. Some believe that the tradition dates back to the Viking practice of burning a galley as a sacrifice to the sun and others believe that it is a celebration for the beginning of spring (Discovery Communications). Another explanation for the holiday is stated by Mackie (1967:18) in his book, Scottish Pageantry , “The Shetlanders in their Up Helly Aa torchlight procession and their parade of the Viking boat commemorate their Norse ancestors and assert their distinctiveness”. When the Yule holiday became Christmas with the arrival of Christianity, the 24 th night after became “uphalliday” to signify the end of the holidays when the Vikings could feast, drink, and burn bonfires again since the Christian holy period ended on that day. The last Tuesday of January did not become the official day for the celebration until the end of the 19 th century, and has been every year since. (Scotsman.com).



During the day of the celebration, traditional music is performed and there is a parade of many Shetlanders, women, children, and men dressed in traditional clothing (see Figure 2). The main focus of the festival is the late evening torchlight procession (see Figure 3). More than eight hundred men in disguise (guisers) proceed through the streets where hours before children paraded in their own costumes. The men carry burning torches escorting the “Guizer Jarl” (Box and Fiddle), or chief man in disguise and his galley (see Figure 4). The climax of the ceremony is when the procession halts and the torches (several hundred of them) are thrown upon the galley and it is burned to the ground. Throughout the night, the disguised men visit the halls set up for the evening entertainment of traditional dancing and drinking. The next day, Wednesday is naturally an observed holiday, so the Shetlanders can rest after their day of revelry.



This is one of the magnificent galleys before it enters the parade. Retrieved from OriginArt Up-Helly-Aa 2003 . http://www.originart.net/features/uha2003/aaksytrik1.html




Prognosis for Up Helly Aa

If the anticipation, excitement, and joy of celebrating Up Helly Aa are not enough to keep the ritual alive, then certainly the history of it could. The day has been celebrated for several centuries and shows no signs of fading into history. Up Helly Aa has been growing into one of the largest ritual of its kind in Europe . Several hundred to over a thousand people turn out for the event each year, and that number is only growing (Scotland Online).



The celebration of Up Helly Aa can be summed up as the result of revitalization within the Shetlander culture, and it contains sacred acts, role reversal, and communitas. The Catholics converted the ancient Shetlander holiday of Yule to Christmas. Then their bonfire celebration evolved into Up Helly Aa on the last Tuesday of January. The yearly bonfire event ties the Shetlander communities together while helping them remember their Viking ancestry and history.


Internet References Cited

  • Discovery Communications Inc. 2004. Lerwick Up Helly Aa . http://www.whatsontheplanet.com/wow/ptnr/discovery/page.jsp?fx=event&event_id=22534.

    This website is from the TravelChannel.com and provides a synopsis of Up Helly Aa.

  • The Geography of Scotland . Heritage of Scotland . Retrieved September 19, 2004, from the World Wide Web: http://www.heritage-of-scotland.com/index.htm

    This website has general information about Scotland , but focuses on the country's heritage.


  • Harris, Andrew S. 2004. Britannia.org Scotland : Scots Dictionary. “Up-Helly-Aa”. Retrieved November 4, 2004, from the World Wide Web: http://www.britannia.org/scotland/scotsdictionary/u.shtml

    This site is a Scottish dictionary that provides a definition for the roots of the term “Up Helly Aa”.

  • Scotland.com. (1995-2004). Scotland.com Your guide to Scotland . Scotland.com & Virtual Countries, Inc. Retrieved September 17, 2004, from the World Wide Web: http://www.scotland.com/

    This website provides general information about Scotland , such as population, geography, cultural information, etc.


  • Scotland Online: Heritage. “December: Revelling in the Daft Days”. Retrieved November 4, 2004 from the World Wide Web: http://www.scotlandonline.com/heritage/cookery_december_intro_three_full.cfm

    This site supplies information concerning the celebration of Up Helly Aa, including the significance of the burning of the galley.


  • Scotsman.com. 2002. Viking and Country. Scotland on Sunday . Sunday 27 January. http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=760&id=89772002&20041021025939

    This is an online news article concerning the history of Up Helly Aa and a recent Guizer Jarl.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Gibson, James E.
      • 1992     Celebration and transgression: Nietzsche on ritual. Journal of Ritual Studies. 5(2): 1-13.
  • Jankowiak, William and C. Todd White
      • 2000     Carnival and the Clipboard: An Ethnological Study of New Orleans Mardi Gras. Ethnology 38(4): 335-349
  • Mackie, Albert.
      • 1967.    Scottish Pageantry. Hutchinson & Co: Great Portland Street, London .
  • Tramacchi, Des
      • 2000    Field Tripping: Psychedelic Communitas and Ritual in the Australian Bush. Journal of Contemporary Religion 15(2): 201-213
  • Turner, Victor and Edith
      • 1983     Religious Celebrations. Celebration. – Washington D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press. 201-218.
  • Wallace, Anthony F. C.
      • 1956     Revitalization Movements. American Anthropologist 58(2): 264-281.
  • Wong, Wei
      • 2003     Revitalization of Local Community and Ethnicity: Nagasaki 's Lantern Festival Among the Immigrant Chinese. International Journal of Japanese Sociology 12: 17-32


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