For the first time in the Up Helly Aa history, women and girls were allowed to join the Jarl Squad and lead the procession.
This is the first time in 143 years of the festival that women and girls have taken part.
Complaints have been made about the lack of inclusion for decades, but now things are changing!
Jenna Moar, 16, is one of the first female members alongside three of her cousins. All are now full members of the Jarl Squad, the axe-wielding folks who parade in Viking-dress to celebrate Up Helly Aa.
What is the Up Helly Aa festival?
Up Helly Aa is a unique and vibrant fire festival that takes place annually in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands. Celebrated on the last Tuesday of January, this festival is a spectacular showcase of Shetland’s rich Norse heritage and community spirit.
The origins of Up Helly Aa can be traced back to the 19th century when local young men started to revive Shetland’s Viking past as a way to brighten up the long, dark winter nights. The festival reached its modern form in the 1880s and has since become one of Europe’s most renowned fire festivals.
The highlight of Up Helly Aa is the torchlit procession that parades through the streets of Lerwick. Thousands of participants, known as guizers, don Viking costumes, helmets, and carry flaming torches as they march through the town. The atmosphere is electrifying, with the flickering flames casting an eerie glow on the faces of the guizers, creating a surreal and captivating sight.
The procession culminates in a symbolic burning of a Viking longship, known as the galley. This grand finale represents the end of the winter season and the rebirth of the sun, harking back to ancient Norse traditions. The fiery spectacle is accompanied by the rhythmic beating of drums and the cheers of the onlookers, creating a sense of unity and camaraderie.
Despite the fierce appearance, Up Helly Aa is not about aggression but rather a celebration of tradition, artistry, and community. Each year, a Jarl (chief Viking) is chosen to lead the festivities, and a meticulously crafted Viking suit is created for him, reflecting the intricate craftsmanship involved in the festival’s preparations.
Up Helly Aa has not only become a major tourist attraction but also a testament to the Shetland Islanders’ commitment to preserving their cultural heritage in a contemporary context. The festival’s unique blend of history, creativity, and community participation makes it a standout event on the global cultural calendar.