Friday, February 8, 2008

"Up Helly Aa is a lot more than a sub-arctic bonfire and booze-up." - STA Travel website

(From 2 February - a bit late!) Lerwick can be described, at best, as a sleepy town. Its 7000 residents keep to themselves, and a busy Saturday morning could mean 25 people on the town's high street. But this is the end of January; this is Up Helly Aa week. The narrow Commercial Street suddenly becomes thick with people, some sporting thick beards, aging them beyond their years. A pipe band marches through the town's few streets, leading the Jarl Squad, a battalion of men and boys in handcrafted metal hats and mesh tunics, gripping gleaming axes and shields. Even the most tattered of the town's three cafes have a line snaking out the door. The last week of January, even Lerwick could be mistaken for a buzzy village anywhere.
The last Tuesday in January begins at 7am, when the "The Bill" (above) is placed at the Market Cross, which marks the town center. At this time the mayor of Lerwick hands the Jarl, the head of the festivities, the key to the city. Lerwick now belongs to the Jarl and his squad; they can do whatever they want to the place. During the day, the Jarl Squad usually visits schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and government offices. They ride around in a large bus, eating and drinking and rabble-rousing along their way.

Work ends early on Up Helly Aa day. People begin lining the streets at dusk, standing three to five people thick, anticipating. At quarter past seven, the lights of the city are turned off. The impact of the darkness is instant, as the stars become bright and a chill climbs up the spine. Then, a flash of color, lighting up the rooftops two blocks away. The flash continues until an entire block of rooftops are outlined by smoke and light. This continues as the line of torches snakes down a side street, then in front of us. The heat is almost painful. Leading the procession is the Jarl Squad, then the Galley, a boat with a serpent's head and tail, with the Jarl inside. Of the 941 'guizers', 875 men with torches marched, in full costume, along the Lerwick streets, doubling back and meandering in the same manner that has been marched for over a century. They meet in the middle of a playground, where the galley is surrounded by the men with their torches held high. The Jarl tosses his onto the galley, then his squad, then the other squads, in meticulous order, one by one. The sight is spectacular. Flames higher than the houses surrounding the playground stretch to the sky, the only light on this cold evening. A band begins to play, and when the final torch is tossed, a fireworks display lights up the dark sky. Then, it's over; everyone leaves.

There's no police presence. None was needed. No fire brigade waiting around the corner. Shetlanders have taken part in this ceremony for generations. Accidents don't happen, because they just don't.

It's nearly nine, and it's now time to change and get ready for the party. Twelve 'halls' are used as a restaurant, dance floor, and performance space. We go to the Territorial Army hall, in a stone fort just beyond the town center, with the most dramatic entrance of red carpet and a long awning. The girls spend an hour 'hostessing', or taking tea, coffee, water, sandwiches and cakes out to the dining tables. All females who are invited to the halls are expected to help hostess for an hour; fair enough, but far easier towards the beginning of the evening. (One of our group had the 6-7am time slot.) The 46 squads visit throughout the night, performing skits and dances based on local politics, culture, and gossip. The skits are quite clever. Costumes include everything from fuzzy animals to old people masks to robots. The squads have worked for a year on perfecting their skits and costumes, and it's their night. After their skits, the squads announce a Highland Dance. Here's where I'm glad I took dancing lessons a few weeks ago; it's far more fun being able to join in for the madness. Then they sip soup and grab a quick sandwich, and their time is up, and the squad piles into a bus and goes to their next hall.

We made it til about 6am. Zain was feeling really tired, and Matt and I probably would have pushed it (and regretted it!) had he not wanted to go home. I was proud of us though - a load of time on our feet, dancing and being silly. And we made it home with one bottle of wine - which means we had 5 between 3 of us over the course of 12 hours. That's also impressive.

The next day they did it all over again; the Jarl hosted a 'hop'. Are you kidding me?! Matt and I napped for a few hours and couldn't feel our faces until sometime mid-Thursday. I haven't pulled an all-nighter in years, and now I remember why. Kudos to the Shetlanders who party far harder than I could ever imagine.

Then, it was Thursday, then Friday, when our friends gave us a great send-off. And now I'm in Inverness. I've already heard admirable comments from local Inverness folk who have also survived Up Helly Aa. More to come from this charming city, but as for now, bask in the glow of fire and Vikings and ritual and tradition.

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