As I watched the flames die down and the burning galley turn to ash, I was buzzing with everything I’d seen, heard, felt and smelt so far this evening. It was after 9pm, but the night was only just beginning. It would be at least 12 hours until I’d get to bed. With exhilaration coursing through my veins and anticipation tingling my nerve endings I made my way to the primary school where the evening’s entertainment was just beginning.
It was already busy when I arrived. I gave my name at the door and, thanks to Linda, the daughter-in-law of the man I’d met earlier at the galley, my name was on the list and in exchange for 25 quid I was given a wristband. Up Helly Aa is expensive. The costs involved in making the detailed costumes and weaponry and building the galley are no mean amount. I don’t know if any of my £25 went into a general Up Helly Aa fund or if it was all to cover the costs of the evening, but either way by 8am I definitely felt I’d got my money’s worth.
|A disrespectful tribute to Elvis. He was sat on the toilet which flushed each time the music changed.|
I headed first for the toilets to peel off a few layers of clothing. A couple of girls were fluffing their hair and applying extra make-up. They looked very glamorous and in my trousers and plain top I felt very under-dressed. I mentally kicked myself for not having packed an outfit on the off chance I got lucky enough to be invited to a hall. Fortunately I’m not one for letting the wrong outfit get in the way of enjoying myself and I made my down to the far end of the school corridor where I stashed my bag and extra clothing.
|Buxom ladies at a local cafe|
This area was doubling as the ‘bar’ area and people were sat around tables enjoying a beer, glass of wine or something a little stronger. No alcohol is sold in the halls so it’s strictly BYO. Most people were very well prepared, with stacks of plastic glasses as well as the booze of their choice. Alcohol is not allowed in the main hall so throughout the evening people were disappearing back here to return a while later with an extra glow to their cheeks.
|Tea-dancing OAPs find themselves in an aerobic class|
I found my way to the main hall and pushed through men in fancy dresses to enter. The 48 squads make their way around the 11 participating halls and put on a short performance in each. There are two to three squads in each hall at a time and once they’ve all performed, the band strikes up and everyone is pulled up onto the dance floor to be whirled around in a series of traditional dances with names like Strip the Willow, Eightsome Reel and St Bernard’s Waltz.
|Green Been / Red to Come – the numbers representing the squads|
A board behind the band held the numbers representing each squad. The numbers started out red and were changed to green once the squad had performed.
|‘I Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore’|
As the squads are all male and many performances require female characters, the squads adhere to the traditions of theatre from years’ past and enthusiastically embrace cross-dressing. It is said that lingerie shops in Lerwick do a roaring trade in the month before Up Helly Aa with all the butch builders, plumbers and roadworkers piling in to buy their bras. Shakespeare would have been proud.
|The Jarl’s squad arrived at about 12.30am|
As the squads are meant to be in disguise most performers wear masks, heavy make-up or dark glasses, only revealing their identities once their performance is finished.
|They must’ve been feeling hot|
The performances are outlandish and tend to be risqué with the squads having names like Fat Bottomed Girls (pink frocks and well-endowed bottoms) and Horny Germans (lederhosen and William Tell hats). Some acts had performers removing clothes, thrusting their pelvises and generally behaving in ways you wouldn’t want your granny to see. Except the grannies here had seen it all many times before and didn’t bat an eyelid. Other performances poked fun at local issues, one such being the skit performed by the Clangers. The squad were dressed as the pink woolly Clangers from the 1970’s children’s TV programme and in the style of the programme, which was quite subversive in some of the issues it alluded to, pulled no punches in referring to all the ‘clangers’ they say Shetland Islands Council have been responsible for.
|‘Fat Bottomed Girls’|
As well as performances and dancing and trips to the bar there were visits to the buffet. Hot soup was being served along with unlimited mugs of tea. Plates were continually being replenished with sandwiches, cakes and biscuits. The tea was welcome, especially when it got to about 5am and I was starting to flag. A couple of mugs of tea and I was raring to go again.
|A ‘Fat Bottomed Girl’ watching ‘Putindabootin’ Russian dancers|
It did strike me that, despite all the merriment, party-spirit and alcohol, no-one seemed really drunk. There was none of the falling around you see on Saturday nights in city centres. No-one burst into tears or started a fight. And I didn’t see one person throw up. I don’t know if it was because of the mixed age group or because everyone knows everyone else or just because of the laid-back character Shetlanders all seem to share, but I do know I liked it.
|He wasn’t really naked|
By the time the last squads had performed, the last tunes had been danced to, and the last mugs of tea had been supped it was 8am. There weren’t quite as many people as there had been earlier, but there were still a lot. Everyone was still cheerful as they made their way out, shouting their byes and dispersing to their beds.
|In need of a bikini wax|
I walked back to Tesco car park where I’d left my van. I was surprised to see the burger van in the car park was open for business and had a customer. How could anyone still be hungry after all the food in the halls? I wasn’t surprised however, to see the customer was a man wearing a tutu.
|In need of a diet|
Note: my photos are RUBBISH. Trying to take photos of fast-moving performers indoors whilst facing a spotlight was a challenge way beyond my photographic abilities. I’ve included a few here anyway as they at least give an idea of what some of the performances were like.
To read about Up Helly Aa day click here.
I’ve written about the history and traditions of Up Helly Aa here and here.
The main Up Helly Aa website is here.