A CELEBRATION of Shetland history explodes into life when Up Helly Aa takes to the streets of Lerwick.

The spectacular fire festival, the biggest in Europe, is an amazing blaze of Nordic glory, guaranteed to blow away the cobwebs of those long, dark and dreary January days.

Its roots might be steeped in Viking tradition but the festival actually dates back to the 1880s, and has taken place every year since. The descendants of those rampaging hordes are just as hardy and laugh in the face of howling gales and horrendous weather. In fact the only years the festival has been cancelled were to mark the deaths of Queen Victoria, King George V, Winston Churchill, for the First and Second World Wars and a flu epidemic at the turn of the century.

The locals form a torchlight procession through the streets of Lerwick before setting fire to a longship. An incredible sight, it is a triumphant demonstration of the fact that it takes more than winter's long days to get you down if you live here.

It would be fair to say that for Up Helly Aa, Lerwick goes more than a little crazy. With bonfire and boozing the party goes on all night long. So wild are the celebrations the following day has now been called a local holiday to give everyone time to recover.

Marking the end of Yule, some describe the event as a northern Mardi Gras. That might be a bit of an exaggeration but there's more to it all than a sub-Arctic bonfire party. Traditionally, Up Helly Aa takes place on the last Tuesday in January and over the years it has become quite a tourist attraction.

The day and night-time celebrations are planned a year in advance and preparations are kept tightly under wraps. One of the biggest surprises is just what Guizer Jarl, the head of the festival, will wear: here's a clue, it usually involves a horned helmet with accessorising axe and shield. He leads up to 800 local men or guizers, clad in Viking gear, through the streets, all carrying blazing torches, to the sacrificial longboat after a signal rocket is launched over Lerwick town hall.

The guizers then visit halls around the town, performing comedy sketches and enjoying a few drinks on the way. Dry weather might not be guaranteed, but the mother of all hangovers certainly is the next morning.

Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland, January 27. www.uphellyaa.org