Shetland fire festivals

April 15th, 2011


Around a thousand years ago, when Vikings moored off the Shetland coast, they cleared everything in their path before colonising the island and bringing with them their farming methods, their language, culture and traditions. In the 15th century when the daughter of the King of Denmark married James III of Scotland, the land of Shetland was returned to Scotland. Since then, Shetland culture has been strongly influenced by Scottish traditions but Shetlanders have never forgotten their roots, retaining their Viking traditions and language.

Among the Viking cultural traditions was the feast of Yule, a celebration of the rebirth of the sun where people from the North used to eat, drink and dance around bonfires. Also known as Uphalliday, it was changed some years later to Up Helly Aa.

Nowadays, the celebration, although more organised, remains almost the same as it was many years ago. It is celebrated throughout Sheltand but Up Helly Aa in Lerwick is the biggest and most impressive one. For the people of Sheltand, it means the end of the winter, the start of longer days and the beginning of a New Year. In these traditional festivals, there is a sense of fraternity, friendship and solidarity that probably only exists in places like the community of Shetland. The community in the island is strong and fire festivals are in some way a celebration of the whole Shetland community. A fantastic way to say good bye to the previous year and look back at it with humour and satire throughout the day and night.

Although the torchlight procession and the burning of the galley in the early evening is the most spectacular part of it, for the Guizer Jarl and his squad, it is a long day, starting in the early morning until early morning the next day. They begin the day by marching in the town before escorting the galley, visiting hospitals, nurseries, primary schools and having receptions at the local halls. Food and drinks accompany the Guizer Jarl and his Squad throughout the celebration. And the procession and the hall celebrations approach, the atmosphere becomes more and more festive.

To be a Guizer Jarl is a great honour. On the day of the celebration, he is certainly the most important man in Shetland. Some of them wait for15 years to enter the history book of Shetland fire festivals. The pride of being a Guizer Jarl probably reaches its peak at the procession and when he enters the burning site, where the galley will be set on fire, with his squad and other guizer squads. Then, starts a long crazy night where the official squad is cheered all night long when visiting halls where people eat, drink and dance to traditional Shetland music, like their Viking ancestors used to do.

To make this photo documentary, I followed two fire festivals: Scalloway fire festival and Up Helly Aa in Lerwick. At Scalloway, I spent the whole day with the official squad before partying at the Scalloway British legion hall. During Up Helly Aa, I mainly focused on the procession before enjoying music, dance, food, drink and the guizer squads at the TA Hall.


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