Scottish islanders don helmets for Viking fire festival

26th January 2016, Comments 0 comments

Dressed in Viking warrior outfits and brandishing swords and shields, the men of Britain's remote Shetland Islands were bristling for Tuesday's spectacular festival of fire celebrating their Nordic roots.

Wearing winged helmets and boasting some impressive beards, around a thousand "Guizers" were marching through the streets of Lerwick as the Up-Helly-Aa festival got under way in the Scottish islands' only town.

The event culminates in torchlit parade headed by the Guizer Jarl, the Viking chief, in which an elaborately-crafted wooden longship is set on fire.

The Shetland Islands are the northernmost outpost of the British Isles and are closer to Oslo than London.

Around 105 miles (165 kilometres) northeast of the Scottish mainland, Shetland was invaded by Vikings in the late eighth and early ninth centuries.

The archipelago was pledged to Scotland by the king of Norway in 1469 but the Norwegian spirit lives on in street and place names.

"Up-Helly-Aa" is a variant of the Scots Uphaliday, denoting Epiphany as the end of the Christmas holiday, according to the New Oxford Dictionary.

Held on the last Tuesday in January, the torchlit parade, longship burning and dressing up in Viking costumes took off in the 1880s.

Peter Malcolmson, the 1984 Guizer Jarl who portrayed a character entitled Eirik Bloodaxe Haraldson, said that before the tradition began, celebrations in Lerwick had been a much more rowdy affair.

"It's now a huge spectacle and tonight you'll see about 1,000 men with torches lining up in the streets getting ready for the procession," he told BBC radio.

"Shetlanders all over the world at the moment will be smelling the paraffin and that's a sense of the anticipation of the event and the pride in it.

"The adrenaline is flowing, the fun is there; it's just a great party."

The merry-making goes on until after dawn on Wednesday, when Shetland has a much-needed official public holiday.

Guizers have been working at least four nights a week since the end of October to build the galley and make the torches.

Participants must have been a Shetland resident for at least five years.

The festival is being filmed on 10 cameras and live-streamed on the website.

© 2016 AFP

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