Axes, armour, torches: Vikings feast on Scottish island

LERWICK, United Kingdom (AFP) – Vikings partied in Scotland’s Shetland Islands on Tuesday in the annual Up Helly Aa festival, featuring a parade of men in suits of armour torching a wooden ship.

The event – which means “long winter’s end” in Old Norse – has taken place in the port of Lerwick, around 200 kilometres northwest of mainland Scotland, on the last Tuesday in January every year since the early 1890s to celebrate the region’s Viking heritage.

“It means a lot to Shetlanders and people in Lerwick that we can do this festival,” John Nicolson, one of the organisers, told AFP.

“It’s really steeped in Viking history here.”

The 48-year-old is the figurehead for this year’s festival – known as the Guizer Jarl – leading a Jarl Squad of dozens of Vikings for the day and hundreds of other dressed up guizers.

“I’ve been looking forward to it for 13 years,” said Nicolson, a self-employed decorator who has been on the 17-strong organising committee all that time.

Guizers dressed as Vikings from the Jarl Squad set fire to the longship with burning brands as they take part in the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands. – AFP

“There’s only been a few guys that have been (Guizer Jarl), so it’s a great privilege.”

The Jarl dons the same suit of armour – comprising helmet, breastplate, shield, axe, dagger and belt – each year.

But in a closely guarded secret, he chooses the design for his and his squad’s other garments, representing a different character from the Norse Sagas stories each time.

The formidable looking crew spent Tuesday parading through the town, before a torchlit procession of hundreds led the burning down of the replica longship – and celebratory parties were expected to last until dawn.

The festivities take place regardless of conditions on the far-flung islands – which sit in the North Atlantic Ocean on the same latitude as southern Greenland.

“There’s no postponement for weather,” said Nicolson.

“It’ll be what it’ll be, and we’ll just carry on.”