By Janice Hopper

The blazing fire festival, Up Helly Aa, annually lights up the Shetland skies on the last Tuesday of January. Burly Vikings march downs the cobbled streets by torchlight, parading a lovingly crafted longship, before the vessel is set alight in a momentous fireball. But visitors aren’t limited to one particular Tuesday in January to get a injection of Shetland’s Viking glory – the UK’s most northerly islands offer ‘Viking appeal’ 365 days of the year.

The Norse adventure begins in Aberdeen. The Shetland ferries are boldly festooned with Vikings across their livery, onboard Norse-sounding vessels such as MV Hjaltland. Eat a Viking Burger at the restaurant, and let the kids play in the ‘Viklings Den’, designed for mini-Vikings to plunder. It’s a slice of branding aptitude, but when you consider that Shetland is equidistant between Aberdeen, Bergen in Norway, and Tórshavn in the Faroes, Shetland’s Norse connections become more apparent.

Shetland is simultaneously indelibly Norse and inherently Scottish. A new restaurant in Lerwick, called ‘The Dowry’, is said to be named after the ‘gifting’ of the Shetland isles to Scotland. The Danish king, Christian I, simply gave Shetland away in 1469, in lieu of a dowry, upon the marriage of his daughter Margaret, to James III of Scotland. Yet the islands lived under Norse law until 1611: that’s relatively recent history in terms of shaping the outlook, language, heritage and tradition of any distinct location.

To get a sense of life before, during and after the Vikings invaded Shetland, make a trip to the south of the island to explore Jarlshof. This prehistoric site is of global renown, featuring more than 4,000 years of human settlement in one location. Whilst children can run around the ancient stonework with relative freedom, adults experience early Bronze and Iron Age settlements. The Vikings invaded Shetland in the 800s, probably pushing the inhabitants onto the islands’ poorer land. At Jarlshof a traditional Viking longhouse is still evident, revealing how the newcomers left their mark on the site’s 4000 years of history. After Jarlshof, an indulgent stop is the Hoswick Visitor Centre. Here, as adults enjoy a cake and coffee pitstop or browse the locally produced crafts and gifts, kids (and big kids) can dress up as Vikings. With multiple smocks, helmets, weapons and shields available, be prepared for enthusiastic Norse sound effects and roars, and many costume changes as amateur Vikings revel in their sartorial choices.

A benefit to visiting Shetland outwith January’s Up Helly Aa fever is potential access to Lerwick’s Galley Shed. In the run up to the festival the shed is a hive of activity, where the men build the longship, churn out 800 fourteen-pound hand-made torches, and create their costumes. During the summer the shed is cleverly converted into an informal exhibition space, complete with a short film, longship, information boards and numerous Viking costumes on display. The ultimate attraction is that the shed is manned by Up Helly Aa stalwarts, who have the inside track on the intricacies of this historic festival.

These men will happily explain how the ‘Guizer Jarl’ is chosen to become the Chief Guizer of the event and the leader of the ‘Jarl Squad’, who are Vikings for the day. Only the Guizer Yarl’s men can wear Viking costumes on Up Helly Aa, and this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. All the other squads wear fancy dress, which explains the Minion outfits and chipmunk costumes on display, and the seemingly endless opportunities for cross-dressing. A display board states that the festival is sometimes nicknamed ‘Transvestite Tuesday’ due to the popularity of guizers embracing their feminine side.

On a more serious note, the position of Guizer Yarl is sought after, worked for over years and hugely respected. The costumes on display, from Jarl Squads of years gone by, are creations of detail and beauty, especially when their intricacy is viewed close up. The men manning the shed scoffed at the suggestion of borrowing or re-using a Viking costume, akin to the way a bride may react to borrowing their mate’s wedding dress. It’s the Jarl Squad’s special day, perhaps a one off, and the Jarls wish to create their own dress, and look their very best. After all, all eyes are on them.

During chats at the Galley Shed it also became clear that the Vikings’ links to Up Helly Aa, the images that bombard the media every January, are relatively recent adaptations to a festival that dates back to the 19th century. Originally it was a raucous night of young men banging drums, firing guns, and pulling blazing tar-barrels through the streets. It’s only since the early 20th century that squads of Vikings have become a key fixture in the event. Festivals naturally evolve, and whilst Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa has changed over time to include Vikings and now features a Junior Up Helly Aa for young boys, it hasn’t evolved to include women or girls in the parade itself. Perhaps the local women see no need to dress up as chipmunks, minions or Vikings. At the Galley Shed visitors can ask pertinent questions and it seems the topic of female involvement in the parade rarely comes up, to which the quip ‘Why rock the boat when you can burn it?’, was well received by the stocky Viking men manning the fort.

After admiring Viking archaeology, costumes and history, a more hands-on experience is available on the ‘Dim Riv’; a replica Viking longboat offering hour long trips around Lerwick harbour throughout the summer. Or dip down to the breathtaking St Ninian’s Isle with its idyllic tombolo of pure white sand. A hoard of silver, apparently hidden from Viking invaders, was uncovered on St Ninian’s Isle in 1958. Buried under the church, the hoard includes bowls, chunky jewellery and fragments of swords. The find occurred on Udal land and this was cited as a reason to keep the treasures in Shetland, but the originals left the islands for Edinburgh. Replicas are on display in the Shetland Museum in Lerwick, and the silverware can be admired in the National Museum of Scotland.

The Vikings were invaders, farmers and rulers, but ultimately they were explorers. Don’t rest easy on Shetland’s mainland, but follow in Viking footsteps and explore Shetland’s remoter islands. Unst is reached by sailing from Lerwick to Yell, and then from Yell onto Unst. It’s only twelve miles long by five miles wide, and offers some of the richest Viking pickings in Europe. The island is an archaeological treasure trove of around sixty longhouses, and it’s said to boast the highest density of rural Viking sites anywhere, including Scandinavia. Haroldswick is a key stopping point, the home of a Viking longhouse reconstruction and the ‘Skidbladner’, a replica Viking longship. Here you discover how Vikings invented the sun compass and how their state of the art longships incorporated cutting-edge keels and rudders. Such technological nautical advancement enabled them to conquer vast seas and valuable islands. Unst Boat Haven and Unst Heritage Centre give further insight into the island’s Viking past, or grab the Unst trail pack at and leave the reconstructions behind to visit an archaeological Viking hill farm at Belmont and an impressive longhouse at Hamar.

Ultimately visitors to Shetland discover that its Viking past is very much part of its present. Shetland mixes Viking facts, with fun, fashion, festivals and fire, giving these islands a fearsome Scottish/Norse identity.

How to get there – set sail with or fly with For information about reaching Unst visit

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