Lerwick Up Helly Aa
History of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa
From the official Up Helly Aa Press Release Pack
"Lerwick Up Helly Aa is a relatively modern festival. There is some historical evidence that people in rural Shetland celebrated the 24th day after Christmas as “Antonmas” or “Up Helly Night”, but there is no evidence that their cousins in Lerwick did the same. The emergence of Yuletide and New Year festivities in the town seems to post-date the Napoleonic Wars, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habitats and a taste for firearms. On olde Christmas eve in 1824 a visiting Methodist missionary wrote in his diary that “the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all night – the street was thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.”
As Lerwick grew in size the celebrations became more elaborate. Sometime around 1840 the participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings. “Sometimes”, as one observer wrote, “there were two tubs fastened to a great raft-like frame knocked together at the Docks, whence the combustibles were generally obtained. Two chains were fastened to the bogie assuporting the capacious tub or tar-barrel…eked to these were two strong ropes on which a motley mob, wearing masks for the most part, fastened. A party of about a dozen was told off to stir up the molten contents.” The main street of Lerwick in the mid-19th century was extremely narrow, and rival groups of tarbarrelers frequently clashed in the middle. The proceedings were thus dangerous and dirty, and Lerwick’s middle classes often complained about them. The Town Council began to appoint special constables every Christmas to control the revellers with only limited success. When the end came for tar-barreling, in the early 1870’s it seems to have been because the young Lerwegians themselves had decided it was time for a change.
Around 1870 a group of young men in the town with intellectual interests injected a series of new ideas into the proceedings. First the improvised the name Up Helly Aa’, and gradually postponed the celebrations until the end of January. Secondly, they introduced a far more elaborate element of disguise – “guizing” – into the new festival. Thirdly, they inaugurated a torchlight procession. At the same time they were toying with the idea of introducing Viking themes to their new festival. The first sign of of this new development appearing in 1877, but it was not until the late 1880’s that a Viking longship – the “galley” – appeared, and as late as 1906 that “Guizer Jarl”, the chief guizer, arrived on the scene. It was not until after the First World War that there was a squad of Vikings, the “Guizer Jarl Squad”, in the procession every year.
Up to the Second World War Up Helly Aa was overwhelmingly a festival of young working class men and during the depression years the operation was run on a shoestring. In the winter of 1931-32 there was an unsuccessful move to cancel the festival because of the dire economic situation in the town. At the same time the Up Helly Aa committee became a self-confident organization which pokes fun at the pompous in the by then long-established Up Helly Aa bill (the first of which appeared in 1899), sometimes driving their victims to fury. Since 1949, when the festival resumed after the war, much has changed and much has remained the same. That year the BBC recorded a major radio programme on Up Helly Aa, and from that moment Up Helly Aa – not noted for its split-second timing before the war – became a model of efficient organization.
The numbers participating in the festival since then have become much greater, and the resources required correspondingly larger. Whereas in the 19th century individuals kept open house to welcome the guizers on Up Helly Aa night, men and women now co-operate to open various halls throughout the town to entertain them. However, despite the changes there are numerous threads connecting the Up Helly Aa of today with its predecessors 150 years ago."
The Modern Festival
Currently, the event is organised by a committee of sixteen men and the Jarl is appointed at a 'Mass Meeting of Guizers ' held in October of the preceeding year. At this meeting the previous Jarl steps down from office, and one new member is elected to the committee by the guizers present at the meeting. Thus, a new member has a fifteen year apprenticeship before he becomes Jarl. Mass Meetings are often occasions of great hilarity. Another duty for the committee members is to act as marshalls at the procession, keeping the torch bearers strictly on course and making sure they all turn correctly when the counter-marching takes place. The guizers know what is expected of them and there are never any disciplinary problems. The guizers are in squads, numbering from ten to 25 in each and no two squads are dressed alike. There is always great secrecy surrounding what they will represent and what their outfit theme will be.
Prospective Lerwick Jarls
- 2013 Stephen Grant
- 2014 Ivor Cluness
- 2015 Neil Robertson
- 2016 Mark Evans
- 2017 Lyall Gair
- 2018 Stewart Jamieson
- 2019 John Nicolson
- 2020 Liam Summers
- 2021 Neil Moncrieff
- 2022 Richard Moar
- 2023 Calum Grains
- 2024 Lynden Nicolson
- 2025 Ryan Leith
- 2026 Brydon Wright
- 2027 Graeme Garrick
The modern Lerwick Up Helly Aa is one of the most unique, (and largest) fire festivals in the world. The festival takes place on the last Tuesday of January and builds up during the entire preceeding year, as a large Viking longship is created and torches are made for the procession. The event is world famous and attracts thousands of tourists every year. There are many hundreds of Guizers involved and the festival officially begins on the morning of the last Tuesday as the Jarl Squad goes around the town and throughout the schools, hospitals and nursing homes, making speeches and singing Up Helly-Aa songs.
The Jarl is the chief guizer who represents a particular figure in Viking history and his longship, or galley, is given a Norse name. A new man is Guizer Jarl every year having risen to the top of the Up-Helly-Aa Committee list, and is thereafter known as Ex-Jarl. Each year a new, young member is selected to serve on the committee.
Up Helly Aa Day
In Lerwick, the day dawns with a large billboard, officially headed "The Proclamation" but always referred to as "Da Bill", being erected at the Market Cross before daylight. This gives nominal instructions for the guizers, but also details the misdeeds of local characters through the preceeding year and generally pokes fun at authority. A few people named on the bill may be offended but the majority take it in good part and are generally quite proud to have got a mention.
At the foot of the bill is the Jarl's large wax seal, stamped with the motto WE AXE FOR WHAT WE WANT, and the statement There will be no postponement for weather.
In the early morning the Galley is taken from the shed where it has been painstakingly built over the preceeding months and is taken to the Royal British Legion. The Jarl's Squad muster for breakfast at a location chosen by the years Jarl and around 8:30am the Jarl and his squad head to the Toll Clock Shopping Centre. At 9:45 the Jarl's Squad join the Galley at the Royal British Legion and both depart for Alexandra Wharf, along with the Lerwick Brass Band.
This is the first time the public will have seen either the Galley, or the Jarl's Squad, and there is always great interest in the detail of the Jarl Squad's regalia and the colour scheme he has chosen for his Galley. After leaving the Galley at Alexandra Wharf, the Jarl and his Squad march along Commercial Road and the Esplanade before turning into Commercial Street at Church Road. Here they pause at the Market Cross, where Da Bill is located, before continuing along Commercial Street to Harbour Street, along the Esplanade back to the Galley at Alexandra Wharf. The Jarl and his squad allow excellent photographic opportunities with their Galley. From the Galley the Jarl and his squad proceed along the Esplanade and up through Fort Charlotte to a reception in the Lerwick Town Hall where the guizers are received by the Councillors and invited guests and where they are given the Freedom of Lerwick for the day. Toasts are drunk, including one to Måløy, Lerwick's friendship town in Norway.
Following this reception, the Jarl and his squad spend most of the rest of the daylight hours visiting both the Lerwick Primary Schools, hospitals and residential homes for the elderly, no age group is missed out.
The Raven Banner, a red flag with a black raven in the centre, flies above the Town Hall and at intervals during the day, its clock tower bells ring out the festival tunes.
The Evening Procession and Burning of the Galley
At around 7 pm, with the street lights of Lerwick turned off, the squads of guizers are given their torches and start to muster in their prescribed order at the Lower Hillhead. At 7.15 pm the Jarl's Squad passes up the ranks with the Brass Band playing the Jarl's choice of music. At 7.30 pm a maroon is fired giving the signal for the torches to be lit.
This is perhaps the most breathtaking moment for the massed spectators. First total darkness, then all along the ranks the red flares to light the torches, then the blaze of a thousand paraffin-soaked torches held aloft, all done with split second timing.
Then the procession begins. After the light up, the galley with the Jarl on board, his squad and the Brass Band pass down the ranks to the head of the procession with the guizers counter marching behind them. The procession then moves off singing the Up Helly-Aa Song. After marching through a route, long or shortened depending on the weather conditions, in central Lerwick, the procession enters the North Playing Field, off King Erik Street, the galley is halted in the centre, and the squads form several circles around it. A maroon is fired and the Galley Song is sung by the guizers whilst the Jarl's Squad march round the Galley. From on board the Galley, the Jarl calls for three cheers for the "da boys dat built da galley"( Galley builders), "da boys dat med da torches" (Torch makers), and the festival " Up Helly-Aa". Another voice calls for three cheers for the Guizer Jarl (always the loudest), after which the Jarl disembarks from his galley. A bugle call is sounded, giving the Jarl and his squad time to retreat from the impending inferno, and after the last note and only after the last note the torches are thrown into the galley. The front rank of the encircled squads throw first, then retreat to allow the row behind to throw theirs and so on until all the torches have been thrown. Then, the guizers reform their circles and sing "The Norseman's Home". As the mast falls in the pyre there is cheering with further cheering as the head and tail are consumed.
After the burning of the Galley, the squads all head back to their squad huts and begin to get ready to go out to the halls. The squads circulate the halls where they show off their costumes, sing songs or perform satirical skits based on topical news events. In times past, the squads would travel on foot, but buses are the preferred method of transportation these days. People who are not guizing spend the night in the halls waiting to be entertained by the guizers. Musicians are in every hall, but each squad has one or two musicians of their own who join in with the resident bands and play for the inevitable dancing. Younger men, usually sons of squad members, who carry the musical instruments are known as "fiddle-box carriers."
In the halls, non-alcoholic refreshments are provided for everyone--usually sandwiches and tea--served by volunteer hosts and hostesses who also ensure that events go smoothly. The festivities continue into the early hours of the morning.
There are three songs associated with the event, the oldest being The Norseman's Home, first sung in 1896. The words are of obscure origin and it is sung to a traditional Norwegian melody. The following year, J J Haldane Burgess wrote the Up Helly-Aa Song specially for the occasion and this is sung to music composed by Thomas Manson. In 1935, John Nicolson's The Galley Song was incorporated and this is sung to a Norwegian folk melody.
A hall is where the squads visit and private parties are held. Tickets can be bought for certain halls, whereas others may require the invitation of a host or hostess.
At each hall each squad performs their own act, this may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing, usually in flamboyant costume. They will do this same act in every hall. The squads then request a traditional dance before giving three cheers for the particular hall. They then leave for the next hall and repeat the sequence again. Squads aim to spend 45-50 minutes per hall, however this is usually not the case and often squads finish a lot later than this. Squads are dispersed evenly over the halls, so they there are no long waits for acts to go on. There are usually 3-5 acts who start in the same hall and accompany each other throughout the entire evening, while the Jarl Squad goes around the halls in reverse order, so that other squads get to witness them.
Traditionally, it is viewed that women go to the halls to dance with and have supper with the guizers as they are not allowed in the squads in the Lerwick festival. However, now the halls are filled with a variety of different people, from children to tourists, male and female.
In order of rotation for a squad starting at Sound Primary School
- Sound Primary School
- Sound Hall
- Anderson High School
- Lerwick Town Hall
- The TA
- Northlink Ferries Terminal (occasionally referred to as P&O or Ro Ro).
- Lerwick Legion
- Islesburgh Community Centre
- Bells Brae Primary School
- Gilbertson Park Hall
- Clickimin Leisure Centre
Lerwick Up Helly Aa by Year
Lerwick Guizer Jarls By Year
|Year||Name||Representing||Galley Name||Ranks Tune|
Gallery of Jarl Squad's Shields
Recent shields are shown here. For older shields see The Bells Brae Collection.
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- Category:Up Helly Aa Songs