Saturday, February 11, 2006

Scottish Culture Part 3: Up-Helly-Aa

History

The celebration of Hogmanay dates back to pagan times when people burned fires in the depth of winter to ward off evil spirits. These rituals include The Fireball Swingers of Stonehaven (Which takes place in the High Street of Stonehaven at midnight on the 31st of December. At the strike of midnight the High street is lit up as sixty local fireball-swingers make their way, swinging their fireballs above their heads, through the town.)

Another fire festival is Up-Helly-Aa which takes place each year on the last Tuesday of January. Up to 1000 costumed "guizers", bearing flaming torchs, drag a Viking galley through the dark streets of the Shetland capital Lerwick. They are led by a horde of vikings wearing traditional garb, winged helmets, sheepskins and carrying axes and shields. At a designated burning point in the town, the torches are thrown into the galley and the ship burns.

The Shetland Islands have strong links with their Norse past and is celebrated each year in January with a fire festival called Up-Helly-Aa (also Up-Helly-Ah).

UP-HELLY-AA is a relatively modern festival. There is some evidence that people in rural Shetland celebrated the 24th day after Christmas as "Antonsmas" or "Up Helly Night", but there is no evidence that their cousins in Lerwick did the same. The emergence of Yuletide and New Year festivities in the town seems to post-date the Napoleonic Wars, when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms.

On old Christmas eve in 1824 a visiting Methodist missionary wrote in his diary that "the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night - the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England."

As Lerwick grew in size the celebrations became more elaborate. Sometime about 1840 the participants introduced burning tar barrels into the proceedings. "Sometimes", as one observer wrote, "there were two tubs fastened to a great raft-like frame knocked together at the Docks, whence the combustibles were generally obtained. Two chains were fastened to the bogie asupporting the capacious tub or tar-barrel . . . eked to these were two strong ropes on which a motley mob, wearing masks for the most part, fastened. A party of about a dozen were told off to stir up the molten contents."

The main street of Lerwick in the mid-19th century was extremely narrow, and rival groups of tar-barrelers frequently clashed in the middle. The proceeding were thus dangerous and dirty, and Lerwick's middle classes often complained about them. The Town Council began to appoint special constables every Christmas to control the revellers, with only limited success. When the end came for tar-barreling, in the early 1870s, it seems to have been because the young Lerwegians themselves had decided it was time for a change.

Around 1870 a group of young men in the town with intellectual interests injected a series of new ideas into the proceedings. First, they improvised the name Up-Helly-Aa, and gradually postponed the celebrations until the end of January. Secondly, they introduced a far more elaborate element of disguise - "guizing" - into the new festival. Thirdly, they inaugurated a torchlight procession.

At the same time they were toying with the idea of introducing Viking themes to their new festival. The first signs of this new development appeared in 1877, but it was not until the late 1880s that a Viking longship - the "galley" - appeared, and as late as 1906 that a "Guizer Jarl", the chief guizer, arrived on the scene. It was not until after the First World War that there was a squad of Vikings, the "Guizer Jarl's Squad", in the procession every year.

Up to the Second World War Up-Helly-Aa was overwhelmingly a festival of young working class men - women have never taken part in the procession - and during the depression years the operation was run on a shoestring. In the winter of 1931-32 there was an unsuccessful move to cancel the festival becuse of the dire economic situation in the town. At the same time, the Up-Helly-Aa committee became a self-confident organisation which poked fun at the pompus in the by then long-established Up-Helly-Aa "bill" - sometimes driving their victims to fury.

Since 1949, when the festival resumed after the war, much has changed and much has remained the same. That year the BBC recorded a major radio programme on Up-Helly-Aa, and from that moment Up-Helly-Aa - not noted for its split-second timing before the war - became a model of efficient organisation. The numbers participating in the festival have become much greater, and the resources required correspondingly larger. Whereas in the 19th century individuals kept open house to welcome the guizers on Up-Helly-Aa night, men and women now co-operate to open large halls throughout the town to entertain them.

However, despite the changes, there are numerous threads connecting the Up-Helly-Aa of today with its predecessors 150 years ago.

Source – Shetland Times


The following pictures are from the Edinburgh Torch Light Procession held on or around the 29th of December as part of a week long celebration for Hogmanay which also includes street performances, concerts and husky racing! The Edinburgh Torch Light Procession is led by a 30-strong troupe of vikings from the Lerwick Up Helly Aa Viking Festival and historical fight display team, The Clann. Some 15,000 people with torches walk through the city, following the Vikings and the evening culminates in burning a traditional Viking boat.

Fire Procession Picture 1

Fire Procession Picture 2

Fire Procession Picture 3

Fire Procession Picture 4



Up-Helly-A' Song

Words by J. J. Haldane Burgess,
M.A. Music by Thomas Manson

From grand old Viking centuries Up-Helly-A' has come,
Then light the torch and form the march, and sound the rolling drum:
And wake the mighty memories of heroes that are dumb;
The waves are rolling on.

Chorus -

Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,
Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;
Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past;
We answer it "A-oi"!
Roll their glory down the ages,
Sons of warriors and sages,
When the fight for Freedom rages,
Be bold and strong as they!

Of yore, our firey fathers sped upon the Viking Path;
Of yore, their dreaded dragons braved the ocean in its wrath;
And we, their sons, are reaping now their glory's aftermath;
The waves are rolling on.

In distant lands, their raven-flag flew like a blazing star;
And foreign foemen, trembling, heard their battle-cry afar;
And they thundered o'er the quaking earth, those mighty men of war;
The waves are rolling on.

On distant seas, their dragon-prows went gleaming outward bound,
The storm-clouds were their banners, and their music ocean's sound;
And we, their sons, go sailing still the wide earth round and round;
The waves are rolliing on.

No more Thor's lurid Hammer flames against the northern sky;
No more from Odin's shining halls the dark valkyrior fly;
Before the Light the heathen Night went slowly rolling by;
The waves are rolling on.

We are the sons of mightly sires, whose souls were staunch and strong;
We sweep upon our serried foes, the hosts of Hate and Wrong;
The glory of a grander Age has fired our battle-song;
The waves are rolling on.

Our galley is the People's Right, the dragon of the free;
The Right that rising in its might, brings tyrants to their knee;
The flag that flies above us is the Love of Liberty;
The waves are rolling on.


Next post: Blogging with my 1-2-1 students


1 Comments:

Blogger Nina Liakos said...

The fire procession pictures are awesome! Did you take them, Kat?

4:28 PM  

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