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World Celebrations: January. Up Helly Aa – the biggest Fire Festival in Europe.


3 min read

Written by


Argos Multilingual

Published on

31 Jan 2017

Welcome to our new blog post series “World Celebrations”. Each month we will dedicate one post to specific holidays and festivals happening around the world, providing you with an insight into the festival’s origin, the culture and fun facts about language. We hope you will celebrate these festivals together with us by reading the each post in this series!

Starting the year and our series with a bang, January is devoted to UP HELLY AA.

Up Helly Aa is an annual fire festival in Scotland, which is also known as the Feast of the Vikings. This spectacular event is held on the last Tuesday of January in the town of Lerwick – the largest city in Shetland. Thousands of people gather to walk through the city with flaming torches, with the highlight of the ceremony being the burning of a Viking boat. The festival itself re-enacts the Viking invasion, where over a thousand years ago, Vikings settled in Shetland.

So, how does Up Helly Aa look like?

Preparations for the festival take almost all year and start with the construction of a huge boat – like a Viking “Galley”. Prior to the event, the boat serves as an exhibition hall until it is burnt at the ceremony. On the day of the festival, a group of men dressed as Vikings parade through the town from the early hours of the morning. The whole parade is led by Guiser Jarl, the leader of the group. Guiser Jarl together with his squad (Jarl Squad), first visit important places, such as schools and hospitals and then after nightfall, the boat “Galley” is set on fire.

Traditions of the Up Helly Aa date back to the end of the nineteenth century and thanks to its rich history is the largest and oldest festival in Europe.

Between the 10th and the 12th century in Scotland, the dominant language was Scots Gaelic, belonging to the Celtic language. Later on, the main language became Scots (lowland scots). Nowadays English is widely spoken in Scotland and it is the country’s official language. Of course, we can still find some that speak Scots Gaelic and Scots, but in the minority. However, during the Viking period, the Old Norse language was used in the areas reached and settled by Vikings, including Shetland. Inevitably, the large geographical coverage of the Old Norse language caused it to fragment into dialects and ultimately split into smaller languages. To this day the influence of the Viking culture is still present in many of the towns’ names. Even Up Helly Aa is a reminder about the impact the Viking invasion had on the people of Shetland, especially on their culture and language.

For those who would like to experience the medieval climate and culture of the Vikings, we definitely recommend visiting Shetland in Scotland during the Up Helly Aa festival.

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