• The 2017 Up Helly Aa Takes Place In The Shetland Islands. (Getty Images Europe)Source: Getty Images Europe
Once a year, viking culture is literally reignited with fire at the 'Up Helly Aa Festival' in the Scottish Shetland Islands.
Sam Carroll

5 Feb 2017 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 5 Feb 2017 - 9:59 AM

If you think that, these days, Viking sightings are refined to dress-up parties and dramatic Nordic noir television series, think again. Over in one town in Shetland, Scotland, Viking culture has literally burned up the streets. 

The Up Helly Aa festival, is a Viking fire-themed event that takes place in Lerwick, Shetland (UK), on the final Tuesday of January every year.

This year, it occurred on 31 January and came complete with a series of Viking marches and visitations. And it culminated in a torch-lit procession and the ceremonial burning of a galley.

The winter festival takes months of preparations and, according to organisers, only war or disease will stop it from running. Since the 1880s, the festival has only ever been cancelled three times - once for the death of a queen and twice because of a world war - and postponed three times - once for the death of a King and a Prime Minister, and another time because of an influenza outbreak. 

Why Vikings and why fire?

The event is of cultural significance to Shetland Island natives, with the Scottish islands formerly the headquarters of numerous pirate expeditions carried out against Norway and the coasts of mainland Scotland.

The islands were under some form of Nordic rule for close to five-hundred years from the eighth to thirteenth centuries.

Increasingly recognised for on a global scale, the event involves upwards of one-thousand people, partaking in a series marches and visitations, culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a galley.

Having been enhanced throughout the years, the first ship was burned in 1889, while the honorary role of the 'Jarl' was introduced in the early twentieth century.

The current festival grew out of the older tradition of tar barrelling where men would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges, making mischief.Following the abolition of tar barrelling in the late 1800s, permission was allowed for special torch processions.

The new series of Vikings returns to SBS on Wednesdays, 8.30pm from 11 January. Watch the full Viking series on SBS On Demand.

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