Viking fire festival

Standing almost horizontal against gale-force winds and the kind of rain that makes you wish you’d spent your life savings on waterproofs, I begin to question my motives for visiting Shetland in January. I’m pressed up against a cold stone wall, counting down the minutes.

Suddenly all the streetlights are extinguished and the tiny town of Lerwick is plunged into darkness. Around me, the dances of sodden spectators trying to warm up regain some of their buoyancy as excitement rises. There’s only one reason thousands of people would come to the edge of the world in the dead of winter to stand outside, for hours, in the pitch black – the Up Helly Aa fire festival.

At 7.30pm on the dot, bright purple-orange flares crack through the din. The distant rooftops seem to blossom with fire as down on the streets below 1000 torches are lit for an army of as many men to march through the streets, led by a battle-clad and bearded band of Vikings known as the Jarl Squad. Flames dance off the winged helmet and shield of their leader, the Guizer Jarl, who commands a replica Viking longship which is wheeled at the head of the procession.

I’ve only been in this remote part of the world for a few days, but the whole thing feels utterly and undeniably Shetland.

 

A land fit for Vikings

This remote archipelago off the northeast coast of Scotland is part of the UK. But touching down here, after a journey of progressively smaller planes and progressively friendlier people, feels like landing somewhere very distinct from the rest of the British Isles. Indeed, the Shetland Islands are closer to Scandinavia than London, and Shetland was part of Norway until it was sold to the Scots in the 15th century.

This is a land awash with Norse heritage, evidence of which is rife in the capital of Lerwick. It’s not just in the street names (kings of yore, from Harald to Haakon, can be found at nearly every turn) or the Scandinavian twang in the accent. The whole place screams Viking. Big, moody skies loom over a patchwork of resilient stone buildings and rugged landscapes, battered by unforgiving weather that can steal your breath and soak your bones – it’s brilliant, but bracing.

Shetland has its everyday rhythms – farmers tend to their land and livestock, local business owners open shop and those on a nine-to-five head into the office. But there is the inescapable sense that Mother Nature rules the roost here. Big storms and rough seas can still cut the archipelago off from the mainland, as one local explains: ‘if the boats can’t come in, no one can get anything’.