Viking Festival – Early in the morning on a long January night in Lerwick, the main town on Scotland’s Shetland Islands, a group of people huddled together, sharing sips of whisky to stay warm. The cold wind whipped around them as they prepared for a special celebration.
In a big shed, they revealed a 30-foot wooden ship designed like a scary dragon and painted icy blue. This ship, known as the galley, would be set on fire later as the highlight of Up Helly Aa, a festival that marks the end of winter darkness and honors the islands’ Viking past.
The sound of marching feet, clattering metal, and beating drums filled the air, along with loud shouts. Dressed as Vikings with blue cloaks and winged helmets, the Jarl Squad paraded the ship through town, took photos, sang, and had a good time. The squad’s leader, called the “Guizer Jarl,” was Richard Moar this year, and he dressed as a Viking named Haraldr Óláfsson.
We’re right in the midpoint between Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, America and Scotland. But sometimes we feel more Scandinavian than Scottish
For the first time ever, women and girls joined the festivities.
Lyall Gair, who led the parade in 2017, said burning the ship is like a fresh start, a way to make it through the dark winter days. Building the galley and costumes is a community effort, keeping locals busy through the fall and winter months.
The Shetland Islands, once part of Norway, still feel strongly connected to their Nordic roots. This connection is clear in local folk music, street names, and even the language, which is mixed with Old Norse words. Even with English becoming more common over the past 200 years, Shetland has its own language, which some are working hard to preserve and celebrate.
Famous for their knitting, Shetlanders create intricate patterns in their knitwear that reflect their Scandinavian influence. Textile enthusiasts from all over come to the Shetland Wool Week festival every fall to celebrate this craft.
As night falls, Lerwick turns off its lights for the festival. Flares light up the sky and a procession with fiery torches makes its way to the galley. The ship is set ablaze, symbolizing the start of the new year. Then, parties with food, drinks, and dancing go on until the early morning.
The day after is a public holiday, giving everyone a chance to recover from their celebrations, much like the Vikings did centuries before.