The Jarl squad parades through the streets of Lerwick

It really is a great idea for a party. The last Tuesday in January, a thousand men dress up in costumes, parade through the town carrying torches, light a replica Viking ship on fire and then retire to various community centres and church basements for an all-night party. 

Up Helly Aa is the way the locals – and more and more tourists – break up the dark, dank and dreary winter on Shetland, the island archipelago in the North Sea north of Scotland. 

Lerwick, the capital and largest town of these remote islands is north of 60 degrees latitude, about the same as Hay River, the former capital of the Northwest Territories and considerably north of Canada’s polar bear capital Churchill. Freezing rain and gale-force winds are more common than the bone-chilling cold of Canada’s north. 

The festival has its roots in the early 19th century, and evolved into its present form later that century and early in the 20th. Around 1870 the name Up Helly Aa was introduced and nearly 20 years later the first Viking longship was used. 

The Guizer Jarl and the Jarl Squad dress in elaborate Viking costumes, lead the processions and preside over the festivities. The party starts in the morning with a parade through Lerwick’s downtown pulling the Viking longboat. Then official photos are taken in the harbour. After dark the streetlights are turned out, the 1000-man parade forms, torches are lit, the longship is pulled through the throngs of spectators and finally torches are tossed into the galley. Fireworks explode overhead as the boat burns. 

Other smaller communities on Shetland have their own Up Helly Aa celebrations on a smaller scale. The fire season runs from mid-January to mid-March. 

The challenges facing a photographer tourist were many. It was dark, the subjects were moving and passing through the crowd was nearly impossible. 

But the pictures were everywhere. And the more I shot the more I started to see shape pictures – pictures that are long and thin horizontals or tall and skinny verticals. I’ve always loved shooting shape pictures but that technique has nearly disappeared in today’s pre-formatted, web-dominated media landscape. And that’s a shame. 


Crowds surround the replica Viking longboat

A child watches fireworks as the ship burns

The galley burns, the highlight of the festival


  1. Hi Grant,

    Great pictures and story about a very interesting festival, it makes the Tecumseh Corn Festival look like…….well they try.  As for the shape pictures I like them as well but there is a problem you can’t find ready made picture frames. I knew a fellow who was born and raised in the Shetland islands his name was Peter MacRitchie  a old school type newspaper guy.                    Grant thank you for sharing your work you did good. Cheers, Bill

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