79.8 F
Spring Hill
Saturday, April 13, 2024
HomeHistoryBraving Rough Seas to Witness Fiery End to Viking Longship

Braving Rough Seas to Witness Fiery End to Viking Longship

- Advertisement -

Up Helly Aa pagan fire festival marks end of winter solstice in Shetland

‘What was I thinking?’ I thought out loud as I donated the rest of my dinner to the commode in my cabin. I’d already chundered into one of the many hundreds of sick bags conveniently placed throughout the ferry I was on. Excellent planning by Northlink Ferries, I thought to myself. Crossings to Shetland in the North Sea are renowned for rough seas.

The ferry is taking me to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands to take part in their annual Up-Helly-Aa winter fire festival. The Shetland Islands lie between Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Norway. Up-Helly-Aa at the end of January marks the end of the Yule season and the return of the sun after the winter solstice. It’s one of those New Year celebrations that actually don’t take place on Dec. 31, similar to Chinese New Year, which is in February this year.

I’m from Viking stock – the result of a boatload of raping and pillaging Norse invaders who came upon the Isle of Skye generations ago. And as I’ve always been interested in Viking history and traditions, I waved goodbye to the dull, grey and rainy granite city of Aberdeen from the upper deck of my Northlink Ferry Hrossey, full of anticipation for the overnight 13-hour sail to Lerwick — Shetland’s capital town — population 8,000 folk. And practically all of those folk will be dressing up to take part in Up-Helly-Aa, by the way.

The Northlink Ferry Hrossey on her way to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands and the New Year fire festival to welcome the sun after the winter solstice. Photo courtesy of Northlink Ferries.
The Northlink Ferry Hrossey on her way to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands and the New Year fire festival to welcome the sun after the winter solstice. Photo courtesy of Northlink Ferries.

The Ferry

- Advertisement -

Boarding the ferry was a piece of cake. I don’t know why they stipulate arriving 2 hours before departure, as checking in only took 5 minutes and after a short walk, I found the door to my cabin for the night.

It was not too shabby. It had an inviting, comfortable bed, a desk, a telly showing Scottish channels, a wardrobe, all the tech adapters, mirrors and lights I could possibly need, bottled water, lots of shortbread and a kettle to make tea and coffee. Even the bathroom, complete with shower, was roomy.

Ah yes, this was going to be a breeze — going to sleep in one place and then waking up in another is all part of the adventure. My plan was to relax in the comfort of my cabin after checking out all the ship’s facilities. And there were many.

I took a stroll around the ship’s two decks. The lower deck was for accommodations and also boasted a midship bar and lots of lounge seats and reclining chairs. On the upper deck towards the front were shops selling snacks and souvenirs and more recliners for those who haven’t booked accommodations. It even had a small cinema.

My booking for the trip was all-inclusive. Dinner and breakfast and snacks and drinks in the ferry’s lounges. Nice, I thought, as I sipped some Tennent’s Lager before being served a delicious meal of handmade Orkney steak pie and mixed vegetables.

Feeling replenished and a little tipsy, I went back to my cabin to take a shower and looked forward to the ferry rocking me gently to sleep. I did manage to get some sleep but was woken up around 3 am with the boat rolling and pitching so much that I thought it was going to capsize. Never was I so glad to see Lerwick. Breakfast didn’t seem appealing.

Although the ferry is a comfortable way to get to the Shetland Islands, I don’t recommend going in winter or if you suffer from mal de mer. I traveled by train from Inverness to Aberdeen to catch the ferry and the cost was around $250 return. Another drawback is it can add two days (well, nights) to your plans as the experience is a bit like a mini-cruise, but it most definitely beats crowded airport departure lounges.

Lerwick locals dressed as Vikings take part in a torchlit procession to the harbor where they will burn a replica Viking longship.
Lerwick locals dressed as Vikings take part in a torchlit procession to the harbor where they will burn a replica Viking longship.

The Fire Festivals

For 24 hours on the last Tuesday of January, Up Helly Aa festivals take place across various towns and villages in Shetland’s inhabited islands, the largest festivities taking place in Lerwick.

Basically, it’s a bunch of guys dressed up like Vikings (in reality, they look more like a bunch of hairy women) who then set fire to a replica Viking galley they’ve spent months and months building, only to see it burn to a crisp on the water. Hmmmm, I guess it takes all kinds o’ folk to make a world.

I had to tune into the language again. I’ve been away for so long I’ve forgotten some of the dialect. I’m staying in a local pub and surprise, surprise, the chap behind the bar is dressed up as a Viking. He asks: “Whaur dae ye bide? Scotland? Orkney? Norway? Iceland?” “Ach weel, lang mae yer Lum reek and Slàinte mhath.” It’s a good idea to brush up on Old Scots before you get there so you know your “teuchters from your sassenachs.”

Suitably warmed by a wee dram, the night begins with the Viking procession. The leader of the procession is known as the Guizer Jarl, who is dressed up as a figure from Norse legend. This year, supported by his Jarl Squad, it’s Richard Moar portraying Harald Óláfsson, King of Mann and the Isles and a member of the Crovan dynasty. The other squads in the procession, of which there are many, will pick their own costume theme, and these can vary from amusing to historical.

For eons, the procession was only made up of men — men who had not shaved for a whole year to look authentic Viking — but this year, girls and women were admitted to the main squad for the first time. And, as far as I can see, not one of the wenches has managed to grow a beard for the historic occasion.

At precisely 7:30 p.m., all the street lights in Lerwick go out and a strong smell of paraffin pervades the air. There is a tense expectancy among the crowds of people, including me, who line the streets. Suddenly, there’s a loud bang and hundreds of flame torches are lit. The sky is suddenly illuminated and the music starts up. The beautiful replica longship glides off toward its fate, and the axe-waving Vikings move through the cheering crowd. It fair brought goose pimples to my flesh.

The torch-bearing Vikings, in their milelong marching procession, finally reach their destination and surround the beautiful longship, which has been lovingly crafted by skilled hands in a Lerwick shed for several months. The Guizer Jarl, in resplendent costume, winged helmet and a flowing beard, gives the signal and hundreds of burning torches are thrown into the stately ship.

The sight of the blazing longship against the dark, winter sky is awesome. Even Shetlanders, who have taken part in the ritual many times, are clearly moved. The flames lick voraciously through the proud dragon’s mouth on the prow. It is cruelly beautiful.

In the few days I was there, I must have consumed a year’s intake of food and had to contend with supplies of uisge beatha in unPresbyterian quantities. Life can be so stressful having this much fun. Now it’s time to hurry back to Tampa and sanity. I hope the seas will be kind on the return ferry.

Apart from Up-Helly-Aa, Shetland’s natural landscape is among the most dramatic in the world and it teems with wildlife. It’s a place of amazing nature with its moorlands, lochs and seacliffs that attract many different species. From orcas, porpoises, whales and puffins to the famous Shetland ponies and dolphins, Shetland’s wild inhabitants are all around.

Orkney and Shetland Puffins. Photo by Pixabay.
Orkney and Shetland Puffins. Photo by Pixabay.

If you are interested in archaeology, make sure you visit Orkney also. I’d advise you to see Orkney and Shetland both, as they are very different from each other.

July boasts the best of Shetland’s weather. It’s ideal for explorers and you can take the evening ferry over to the Broch de Mousa to see the storm-petrel colonies or visit the preserved Iron-Age settlement with a 2,000-year-old round tower. Another popular visitor attraction in Shetland is Sumburgh Head. A perfect location to view the much-loved puffins, marine life and a lovingly restored lighthouse.

Sue Quigley writes regularly for the Hernando Sun. She can be reached at 727.247.6308.

Sumberg Head in Shetland.
Sumberg Head in Shetland.
Recliner pods on the ferry Hrossey. Photo courtesy of Northlink Ferries.
Recliner pods on the ferry Hrossey. Photo courtesy of Northlink Ferries.
Ferry route from Aberdeen in Scotland to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands via Kirkwall in Orkney.
Ferry route from Aberdeen in Scotland to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands via Kirkwall in Orkney.

RELATED ARTICLES
- Advertisment -

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, offers and special announcements.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit our website.
We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.

Most Popular