Page last updated at 00:52 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Thousands celebrate Up Helly Aa

By Mike Grundon
BBC Scotland

Up Helly Aa
Visitors from around the world travelled to watch the annual festival

Europe's biggest annual fire festival has been staged in Shetland.

Known as Up Helly Aa, it celebrates the islands' Viking heritage with a torch-lit procession and the spectacular burning of a replica galley.

This year it was led by a 60-strong band of latter-day Viking warriors known as the Jarl Squad led by the Viking chief or Guizer Jarl.

This year's Jarl, Stephen Mouat, described it as a tremendous honour and a wonderful experience.

Resplendent in winged helmets and crimson cloaks over leather jerkins, they carried mock battleaxes and knives polished to a high sheen.

Although the Vikings spent much of the day making public appearances and civic visits, the highlight of the event is always the grand evening procession.

It is this that draws hundreds of visitors from as far abroad as Australia and Asia to the northernmost part of Britain in the depths of the winter.

It started at 1930 GMT on Tuesday night in the darkened streets of Lerwick when almost a thousand firebrands were lit then hoisted aloft by marchers, dressed in home-made costumes and known as guizers.

They snaked in a river of fire through the town, dragging with them a life-size replica Viking galley on wheels.

The climax came when they arrived at the park designated as the burning site.

The galley was drawn to the centre and the torch-bearers circled it in a great vortex of flame.

The tension built as the marchers stopped, faced the longship and sang the traditional songs of times past.

Then, at a signal fanfare, they all rushed forward to throw their firebrands into the belly of the ship.

Blazing Viking ship
The guizers threw 1000 burning firebrands onto the longship

It went up immediately.

The signature hymn of Up Helly Aa is called "The Norseman's Home" and it was sung with great reverence as smoke and sparks rose into the night sky above the blazing galley.

As it finished, the sky was lit up with a short firework display and the participants departed to start the party proper.

From then until dawn, the party went on in a number of halls dotted around Lerwick.

Squads of guizers toured the halls acting out short sketches, singing songs and dancing for invited guests.

The event is staged to a tradition that dates back to Victorian times and the participants take their fun very seriously.

The whole event is carefully planned and choreographed to the last detail and as such it's never yet been marred by any serious mishap.

This year was no exception.

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