Sorry, I’ve been busy and sleepy. Not a good combination for writing inspiration, especially if your job involves a lot of writing every day.
After the most interesting night’s sleep I’ve ever experienced, I woke up to discover we had arrived in Lerwick. The weather was aggressive – gale force winds and sleet. After a quick orientation drive around the town, we dove straight into Up Helly Aa festivities with the Jarl squad parade. The Jarls are the only squad to dress as Vikings and they lead the procession in the night, but before all that they have a daylight parade in full Viking glory as they provide a guard of sorts to the galley, which is pulled through the streets for all to see. The galley is about 15 feet long and painstakingly crafted and painted before being set alight. The best thing about the parade is the relaxed atmosphere, everyone can just walk along with it, so there I was following a galley and a bunch of Vikings along a street in driving sleet. Normally they station the galley at the harbour for a photo op but it was far too windy – I heard afterwards it was the worst weather experienced during the festival in over 20 years. I think it made it feel more hardcore, more spectacular and raw. In the end we stopped up near the town hall, took our photos and then made a quick exit to the hotel for drying off. Unfortunately I discovered my backpack had acted as a funnel, guiding the torrential rain down my waterproof jacket to the seat of my much-less waterproof jeans. I was so damp I even had to change my underwear.
We spent most of the afternoon in the Lounge, a small pub of locals and half the band from the parade. The band decided things were much too quiet so nine bagpipers played Flower of Scotland in a room that couldn’t hold more than fifty people. I still don’t think my hearing has completely returned. This was followed by the Fiery Sessions, a folk concert with lots of fiddle playing and little Vikings singing.
After a quick but delicious dinner at the hotel it was time for the main event – the procession and burning of the galley. At the advice of our driver, we stationed ourselves outside the town hall where we got to witness the Jarls have their torches lighted before they went on their way around the town, coming in full circle to then light the other 900 torches on the street below. Watching 900 torches simultaneously light down a street, the orange glow curving round the corner and out of sight, is spectacular. All of the squads then started their march, the air thick with embers and Viking hollers, until gradually the galley came past, its white paint orange in the firelight. Once the squads had passed, we made our way down to the park where the galley would be stationed for burning. This meant that we had our backs to the road, where the procession was passing before entering the park and forming a circle around the galley. Because there were so many men and torches, progress was slow, it meant we were essentially sandwiched between two walls of fire – the men in front, guarding the galley, and the men behind, slowly making their way in. Sometimes it was hard to keep my eyes open, there was so much smoke and embers. Every minute or so I would feel a hand brush an ember off my back and I would do the same for the people in front of me. Without meaning to sound cliched, when the wind would gust, the sky would be filled with millions of glowing embers and it really was magical. It was easy to forget it was 2014 and not centuries earlier. Eventually, the Jarls arrived and somehow all 900 men managed to throw their giant torches onto the galley, which ended up looking like a mountain of oversized match sticks. My scarf still smells of smoke from that night.
Afterwards, we went to invitation-only party in the town hall. Each of the 50 squads has spent months creating a performance complete with choreographed dancing and costumes. The evening, from 8pm until 8am, consists of the squads making their way round the town, visiting different halls and showing off their performances. Normally only the locals see these, so it felt really special to be there. Between it squad’s performance is ceilidh dancing, drinking and eating. This honestly had to be the most insane party I’ve ever been to, but after experiencing the relentless grimness of Shetland’s winter, I don’t blame them for getting a little crazy. Each performance was unique, hilarious and potentially disturbing. Men between the ages of 16 and 65 dressed in ridiculous costumes and danced like a Rock Eisteddfod on crack. There were Dispicable Me minions, life-size puppets, oriental geishas performing magic tricks, bumblebees, the Gruffalo, Spanish señoritas (there was a lot of cross dressing), Santas and far more skin-tight spandex than I ever wanted to see. My favourite performance though was the Flash in the Pan, which featured men dressed in fedoras, sunglasses and trench coats that they would wrench open in time to music. Underneath each man was wearing boardshorts, a frying pan at their hips and a ladle between their legs, which was also attached to their knees. When they would pull their knees apart the ladle would fly up and whack the frying pan. It was the most bizarre, most hilarious thing I have ever seen. Considering these are all regular guys – oil rig workers, teachers, businessmen, bus drivers – the level of choreography and creativity is amazing. Naturally as the night progressed and everyone got progressively drunker the performances did slip a little. But it was brilliant. I’ve still got to upload my videos but here’s one I found on youtube:
The day began with a subdued breakfast where I noticed what appeared to be a really old bullet hole in the window next to my table, facing out of the dining room – I wonder if it’s a remnant from the original Up Helly Aa Festival of the 1800s when celebrations were considerably more violent. We spent the day driving around Shetland, seeing its spectacular scenery and the occasional lone panda or Viking from the night before walking along the road, slowly making his way home to bed. My favourite spot had to be St Ninian’s beach, which if it wasn’t so hellishly cold would be perfect for swimming. The water around Shetland is a shockingly clear, aquamarine blue. I was expecting it to be an unforgiving, steely grey. The Jarlshof was also pretty cool; a collection of archaeological excavations of ancient settlements. Mostly the sea was the show-stealer though. It was hard not to watch the waves constantly crashing as the wind buffeted everything in its path. No trees naturally grow on Shetland. Lerwick has a few dotted around in people’s gardens but the rest of the island is bare.
The afternoon saw us back on board the ferry, for another rough night ahead. I wisely had a light lunch and no dinner and wasn’t ill, though the feeling of being on a boat that rocky still isn’t an entirely pleasant one. At one point my chair nearly tipped over in this weird sort of slow motion. I saw the boat start to raise slowly to my left and continue raising underneath me. I was able to grip the table and stay upright, but not everyone did. That night sleeping it felt like someone was picking the boat up and dropping it straight down, causing an odd sensation of weightlessness that isn’t entirely helpful for sleeping.
After the insanity and adrenalin rush that was the past four days – not knowing if we were going to make it to the festival, rough ferries, the festival and after party – we took it pretty easy on our way back to Edinburgh. We stopped at a nature reserve and walked along St Cyrus beach before having a real Arbroath smokie in Arbroath for lunch. Our final stop was the Hermitage, just outside of Dunkeld, a gorgeous forest walk to Ossian’s Hall, overlooking Black Linn falls and (coincidentally) a hermit’s cave. Of course I had to ask the question of whether the hermit purposely chose the Hermitage to live. (They didn’t know.) Just before dusk we made it back to Edinburgh, exhausted but elated from the experience.
I had such an amazing time during Up Helly Aa, I thoroughly recommend it and would love to do it again one day.