Up Helly Aa: an ancient Viking festival?
By Brydon Leslie
The New Shetlander, No.258 (2011)
Introduction: Each year on the last Tuesday of January the town of Lerwick is awash with Vikings. The day culminates with the burning of an ornate longship, complete with dragon head and tail, thus creating a striking image of a Norse sea – king’s funeral pyre. Afterwards modern day Vikings and guizers in colourful costume revel into the early morning with their feast, dance and song. These Up Helly Aa day rituals are described as ‘ancient’, representing a certain cultural continuumfrom the days of their Norse forefathers.
In this paper I shall peel back the layers of history to reveal the true roots of this so-called Viking festival. Up Helly Aa is shown to be a purely local affair with more social connections to Scotland than to Norway, the homeland of the Norsemen. We discover that Up Helly Aa is not an archaic calendar custom of a bygone age; rather it is a concept that engenders a sense of identity within people very much alive today.
When we consider Up Helly Aa it quickly becomes apparent that two quite different concepts are anticipated by this curious title; neither of which, dare I say, have anything in particular to do with Vikings. Before tackling the awkward legitimacy of these alleged ancestral celebrations, it is first necessary to broach both definitions of the festival. One is nostalgic, reminiscent, and overtly concerned with the revival of rural folk traditions; the other, rather, can be founding rained in the streets and lanes of an industrial, nineteenth century, town.