So the Husband and I went on this amazing trip to Scotland back in January of 2018. I told you a bit about the Glasgow portion of our adventures in a post back on January 26th of last year. I meant to fill you in on the rest of the trip…the part that was actually the most exciting. You see, we went up to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands for Up Helly Aa – which is Europe’s largest Viking fire festival! Think of it like Mardi Gras if it took place on the same latitude as Greenland! Alas, you know that thing about the best laid plans of mice and men and all that. Long story short…I just flaked and did not write the post. However, that is a wrong that I can easily right. It only took a little pandemic to get me writing. Anyway, I’m going to tell you all about it today along with travel tips and recommendations! And I will give you a great recipe for Scottish Oat Cakes. These cracker/cookies are great on their own and also lovely with a slice of cheese or some jam.
So when last I left you, we were hanging out in Glasgow – taking in all the sights, seeing a bunch of live music at the Celtic Connections festival, tasting whisky and chocolate and sipping champagne in a spa. Before we knew it, it was time to get on up to the Shetland Islands to see those Vikings! The Husband doesn’t really get nervous about most things, but he was not looking forward to flying over the North Atlantic in a tiny plane with propellers. But when faced with the alternative of spending 12 hours on a ferry crossing the North Atlantic in January, he was sure he could tolerate an hour or so on a tiny propeller plane. So he took a shot or two of liquid encouragement and on the teeny plane we went!
Up Helly Aa (pronounced Up Hell ee Ah) is held the last Tuesday in January in Lerwick every year. It marks the end of the Yule season with a nod to the Shetlands Viking heritage. (Up is from uppi which means “end” Helly means “holy days” and Aa is “all” – hence “The end of all Holy days.”) The Shetlands were ruled by the Norse for some 500 years until they became part of Scotland in 1468. On this day, once night falls, the town lights are extinguished and a band of over 900 blazing torch bearing guizers (folks in various disguises – think Halloween) led by a modern day Jarl and his Squad who are kitted out as Vikings, go on a procession through the streets with a full size replica Viking longship, that they have lovingly built, in tow. Once they reach a designated spot, they throw their torches into the ship, turning it into the largest bonfire you’ve ever seen! Sounds absolutely amazing right?!! Let me tell you it absolutely was!!!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning. Our arrival in Lerwick after the scary mini propeller plane adventure. Once again on terra firma, we met up with out good friends and fellow Viking enthusiasts, Bill & Virginia and headed off to check into our lovely AirBnB and have a poke about the town. The town of Lerwick is charming.
Another thing which made me very happy was that there were plenty of Shetland ponies around. I love horses and often carry sugar cubes or apples with me if I think there is a chance I might encounter any.
We had been dreaming about going to this festival for some time, so we were all very excited! First thing we needed to do was get ahold of the Raven Banner which would fly over the town on Up Helly Aa, signifying the Guizer Jarl was in charge.
Up Helly Aa starts pretty early with the Jarl Squad marching to Market Cross. So who is the Jarl? Well a different man is chosen to be Jarl each year. This is a huge honor for the chosen one.
He then selects the men he wishes to be in his Viking squad. These men are the only ones you will see dressed as Vikings (besides the Junior Jarl and his Viking squad). There are no guizers in the morning march, only Vikings. This is the first time anyone in the town gets to see the Jarls squads outfits as well as their replica longship, which have been designed with the utmost secrecy. So believe me, everyone is super curious. The modern day Vikings draw a big crowd as they march through the streets, the Guizer Jarl and his squad lead the way
Followed by the Junior Jarl & his squad
until they reach the Market Cross, where they stop and read The Proclamation (or Bill).
This document, which has also been kept secret until the big day, includes instructions for the day along peppered with a healthy dose of local jokes and satire. The Jarl Squad then departs to go pose for formal pictures with their galley at Alexandra Wharf.
Post photo op, the Jarl Squads departs to visit various primary schools, hospitals and retirement homes. We took the opportunity to wander about the town and do some shopping. Many of the shop owners participate in a window decorating competition for the festival.
The Jarl will later chose the winner later, but I had a definite favorite! The Viking in a bubble bath at the Shetland Soap Company was perfect.
Everyone in the town was in great Viking form! Lots of horned helmets (yes, we know the Vikings didn’t actually wear them, but wearing a horned helm is really fun!) Here are some wee Vikings we encountered along the way:
The Husband had grown out his beard for months so I could get these braids in it. I think it’s a great look for him, though it took awhile for him to get used to the feeling of them!
After some shopping, we set off to see The Fiery Sessions which showcase some of Shetlands best traditional music. Then we somehow found ourselves in a pub for some more live music and perhaps a drink or two.
And finally it was time for the main event! The big burn! Now this event goes on no matter what the weather may be. “No postponement for the weather” is the boast often heard throughout the town. And you can imagine at that time of year in the North Atlantic – the weather can be remarkable – snow, sleet, rain, hail and gale force winds have been know to make an appearance. On our night, we considered ourselves pretty lucky, as it was only a bit wet and windy. As you can see, there might have been a few sparks flying about, so it’s a good thing that everything in town was thoroughly dampened!
The procession starts at 7:30. All of the torches are lit and the Jarl, perched in his longship, is pulled through the streets by his Viking squad
followed by hundreds of those guizers that I mentioned. Those are the other participants in the festival. Traditionally groups of townsmen, though recently that is changing as there are now some female guizers, form dozens of squads. Each squad has it’s own costume theme ranging from hula girls, to belly dancers to StormTroopers, to cats, cows or skeletons. Again the squads have kept their particular costume a secret from everyone until this procession.
The torchlit procession, 900-ish folks strong, then winds through Lerwick’s streets
until the longship is pulled into a park where once the Jarl disembarks and gives the signal, all of the torches are pitched into the longship.
And if you haven’t had your fill of fire, there was a bit more to be seen overhead.
But the party doesn’t end here. No, no no! It literally goes on all night long! At this point folks all retire to different halls around town for the after -parties. Now these halls are ticketed events and are usually by invitation only, though some tickets are made available to the public. Our AirBnB hosts were kind enough to score some tickets for us.
At the Halls you will find food, drink and dancing. The Guizers squads that I mentioned before then take turns visiting the different halls to perform an act – such as singing, dancing or doing a comedy sketch.
It is a tradition that every Guizer must dance with at least one of the ladies in each hall and take a dram. Considering there are around 11 or 12 halls each year, can you just imagine the state of the poor Guizers in the morning?!! Good thing that the day after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday! What an unforgettable experience!!! Watch the action packed day in the following video.
And I should mention that in addition to all of the excitement of the festival, the Shetland Islands are gorgeous. We visited a place called Jarlshof which is a prehistoric & Norse settlement archaeological site.
Located in Sumburgh on the tip of the mainland Shetland it contains settlement sites which range over 4000 years of human history – from late Neolithic through Bronze and Iron Ages, the Norse settlement all the way up to a 16th Century Laird’s house.
We absolutely loved exploring here, despite the fact that the weather was certainly not the best that day. High winds and torrential downpours. We were soaked to the skin, but couldn’t tear ourselves away. Definitely a must see if you are visiting Shetland!
Now I guess I should get back to those oatcakes I mentioned at the outset. Oatcakes are a staple in most Scottish kitchens. Kind of a cross between a cookie and a cracker they have a lovely texture and a slightly sweet and salty taste.
They are very easy to make and quite versatile. You can eat them plain, with a bit of butter, jam,
smoked salmon or with cheese. They are a perfect addition to your cheeseboard!
So if Up Helly Aa sounds right up your alley – get planning right away! Lots of folks are interested in going and there are only so many places to stay. And while your making your arrangements – you can pour yourself a wee dram and nibble on some of these tasty Scottish Oat Cakes!
Scottish Oat Cakes
- 2 cups old fashioned rolled oats (not quick cooking or instant)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 cups butter – cut into 1″ cubes
- 1/4 cup very hot water
- Maldon flaky Sea Salt for finishing
Preheat the oven to 375° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Place the oats, flour sugar, salt and baking soda in a food processor. Scatter the butter cubes over the dry ingredients.. Pulse until the mixture looks like coarse grains of sand. Add the hot water slowly, using only as much as you need to get the oat/flour/butter mixture to form into thick dough.
Dust the counter with some extra flour and turn the dough out onto the work surface. Roll the dough out to a 1/4″ thickness. Use a cookie cutter to cut out the oatcakes.
Place the oat cakes on the prepared sheet. Sprinkle a small amount of Maldon sea salt over the cakes. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until lightly browned.
Remove cookies to a rack to cool.
Scottish Oat Cakes brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)
Links for Planning your vacation in The Shetland Islands, Scotland:
Car Rental: We rented our car from Star Rent a Car and were very pleased with both the car and the agency. I definitely would recommend that you do rent a car. Sumburgh Airport is about 20 -25 minutes away from Lerwick. There are taxis available, but if you would like to explore the island, outside of town, you pretty much need a car to do so. And if you are not used to driving on the left side of the road, you will likely want an automatic car, as to avoid shifting gears with your left hand. The number of automatics available are limited, so please remember to reserve your car well ahead of time!
Accommodation: Lerwick is a pretty small town and most of the accommodation available books well in advance (like a year prior) of the festival. I was ready to give up looking (I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get accommodation and had waited until May 2017 to try to book for January 2018) and just plan on going the following year when just by chance, someone cancelled an AirBnB reservation while I happened to be on the sight. I grabbed it immediately and it was absolutely perfect. Ramsay & Nikola’s stylish and cozy house is conveniently located, close to a large grocery store, a delicious restaurant Called Fjara, an Iron Age Broch as well as being a short walk into town. It was immaculatly clean, had all the amenities one could want and was well stocked with tea and coffe. Nikola & Ramsay were friendly and warm hosts. They thoughtfully provided us with milk, bread, the local paper as well as a couple bottles of wine and spot on recommendations for local restaurants. All of our communication with them were easy and their responses prompt. We were visiting Shetland for Up Helly Aa and Ramsay was able to get tickets to one of the Halls for us which we would not have likely been able to do on our own. Furthermore he gave us advice concerning where to stand for the best views during the procession. All of his assistance greatly enhanced our overall festival experience. Here is a link to Ramsay’s house – though I’m not sure if he is still offering it for rent: Refurbished & Modern House in Lerwick.
Before finding the Airbnb, I had emailed many other hotels and guesthouses. Most did not even bother to respond, however Anona Michael of Rockvilla Guesthouse did respond promptly. Sadly she was all booked up, but took the time to recommend other accommodations for me to check availability, as well as offer advice on the festival in general. Rockvilla Guesthouse is right on the procession route, so if you could score a room with them it make things much easier for you!
Fjara Cafe Bar – Loved this restaurant! Friendly and welcoming, with simply amazing views, it is open for breakfast through dinner and even later for cocktails. Seasonal menu features Shetlands finest ingredients, homemade baked goods and local brews.
Peerie Shop Cafe – Cozy & bustling cafe located in the heart of Lerwick. Features delicious homemade breakfasts, baked goods, soups, sandwiches and coffee. Don’t miss out on their scones with clotted cream and jam!
Sumburgh Hotel Restaurant – This is a strange recommendation for me as our experience here was …. well…quite strange! I will let my trip advisor review entitled “We only met one rude person in the Shetland Islands…” do the talking here:
Let me start this by saying, I usually do not write bad reviews. And I hesitate to do so even now, however we experienced such poor hospitality, I don’t think I can let it go without saying something. At the end of January, friends and I visited Jarlshof which is located right near the Sumburgh Hotel. It was raining, cold and windy. After taking in the sights, we hoped to grab some lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel Lounge. Unfortunately, it was after two and lunch service had finished. This is when we encountered the only rude person we met during our entire visit to the Shetland Islands. The good news for the Shetland Island folks is this person was not a local. She had an accent, maybe Italian. She briskly told us lunch was over at 2 pm. Although it was only five after two, we said we understood this but asked if there wasn’t anything at all, maybe even some crisps or bar snacks we could have. She seemed very annoyed and said, “all we have it soup”. A warm bowl of soup sounded great to us. Then, rather than seating us in the warm lounge, she ushered us out to a sort of sun porch type of area, which was unheated and very drafty and cold. We asked if we could eat in the dining room and she said “no, lunch is over.” But other folks were still seated inside and more came in a took seats while we were shivering on the porch like unwanted step children! The barman, who was very friendly to us, seemed somewhat embarrassed by her behavior. I don’t know what had happened to that woman before we showed up to put her in such a mood, but she definitely took it all out on us. We ate our soup, which was very good by the way, and left. Otherwise the hotel seemed nice. As long as you don’t meet up with the rude woman, I’m sure you’ll be fine.
Mirrie Dancers Chocolates – Mirrie Dancers is the name the locals on Shetland use for the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. These gorgeous, handmade chocolates take inspiration from this natural phenomenon as well as the beauty which abounds in Shetland and Orkney. You will find these little gems both beautiful and incredibly delicious! Lovely treat for yourself and a great souvenir to carry back home.
Ninian Gift Shop – Fantastic gift shop which has everything from lovely unique handmade Shetland knitwear to jewelry to stationary to home goods. Wonderfully curated, you will definitely find the perfect gift here for yourself and others as well!
Things to do:
Up Helly Aa: Um….have you read this blog? Yeah, you want to go to this festival!!!
Shetland Museum & Archives – Absolutely wonderful museum!
Shetland Arts & Craft Trail – If you are visiting during Up Helly Aa, these shops will likely have very limited opening, since it is off season, so call ahead to make sure they are open