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Letters / An Up Helly Aa epiphany

This contribution by Lee Connett from Gloucestershire was written the day after the 2023 Up Helly Aa and submitted by the author on Tuesday to celebrate this year’s festival. Here we publish it in full.

It was at 8.48am Wednesday 1 Feb during my eighth visit that I finally understood.

You see, after all these visits to Shetland, I had finally experienced Up Helly Aa in all its glory, hall and all, save a couple of hours where my feeble foreigner’s body had finally given up around 5.30am.

After making it back to my van in town, I had gracefully fallen asleep in the wink of Bearded Britneys (there were many that night) eye, only to be woken in what felt like an instant by the dull tones of music from a vehicle. One of the few people to stir for work on a post fire festive morning? Most likely only crossing paths with those who had not quite made it home yet.

With a dull, droning backbeat and a faint, indecipherable melody making it across the ghostly car park and through the tin walls, the music was generic and uninspiring, not even enough to raise an eyelid.

However, it started to change. Haunting notes played over the top of the dirge as the wind took its cue to turn “generic” into “art”. The bass notes of breath curling around my wing-mirrors, the flutes of Shetland air swirling under and over barriers and abandoned cars, the percussion of Atlantic gale tangling with the hardy Nordic sailboat jauntily tied up in the harbour. It all suddenly came together to make a unique, beautiful and harmonious melody. It was at that moment I had my epiphany and opened my eyes. 8.48am.

I first visited Shetland in 2018, on a whim although now I would term it, like many others before me, ‘a calling’.

Since then, I have been compelled to visit many times, which is an enigma in itself as I have many cheaper bucket list places to go. Every visit ends with me planning the next one and I just didn’t know how to explain why, until 8.48am Wednesday 1st February 2023.

Up Helly Aa finally explained it with a little help from the wind.

The visuals of Up Helly Aa are astonishing and world renowned. It’s generally why people make the rather odd choice to sail rough seas all night, to battle brutal weather and then stand watching a ship go up in flames.

Those stunning images on media don’t prepare you at all for the reality though. What was that reality you may well ask?

Those costumes? The truth is the Viking costumes that look so good in pictures are even better in real life. They are hewn from passion paired with extraordinary skill and craftsmanship. Metalwork, carpentry, tailoring and every measure of artistic skill to create something that just gets better and better the closer you get.

Photo: Peter Parker

They weren’t made for social media…they were made to be a person’s lifetime memory of a single day. The flaming torches? They are a thousand heavy, raging kerosine firebrands that spit and crackle whilst heating the violent artic wind to face blushing temperatures. The galley? That’s a ship! A real, solid, crafted wooden honest to Odinson Viking ship! The procession? 1,000 men (yes men) drinking, laughing, dancing, performing, throwing caution and pride to the wind to entertain their friends and families and not a cross word heard all night.

There were a handful of police, which was a handful more than needed and all the firemen were probably in the procession clutching torches. Oh, and those prison vans and drunk tanks we get used to down south every weekend night? Well, they just don’t exist.

Then there’s the halls. After the procession there’s ten to eleven hours of those squads of men (yes, men) performing their skilled, sometimes crazy, sometimes fun and sometimes just downright surreal acts to a community who cheer them on, dance with them and send them onto the next hall with three cheers and the Nordic gods speed.

Dancing? Oh, the dancing! Old folk. Young folk. Young dancing with old folk. Good dancers. Bad dancers. Good dancing with bad dancers. Everyone dancing broken Boston Twosteps or chaotic Shetland Reels and yet, they are perfect and harmonious in equal measure.

They are not dancing to create a flawless set piece, they are dancing to make each other happy, and they do it in a way I’ve never experienced before.

Did I mention the music? Scores of note perfect world class musicians churning out relentless reels and jigs of joy for the entire night as their friends and loved ones revel in the notes that fill the town whichever way you turn your ear.

At 8.48am on Wednesday 1st Feb, a whistling wind and all of the above answered my burning question. Why Shetland? The answer was simple.

Shetland isn’t a magical place, detached from reality.

The people are just people like you and me. They operate in the same world that everyone else does, with the same worries, pains and pressures. What they do have is the natural world around them every single day playing a beautiful symphony over the top of their reality.

The wind spiritually and physically slowing their pace and constantly singing reminders in their ears of who they really are.

The temperamental sea creating a hurdle to the non-stop motorway of modern commerce plus booming out demands for them to actually physically come and get their supper rather than just expect it microwaved in seconds.

Then there’s the long, impossibly long winter nights wrapping darkness around them to pull them all closer. Fencing in families and communities to give them the time to realise, to fine tune and then to teach the skills and dreams that we all hoped we could do but always got distracted from. Distractions that are blissfully lacking in Shetland.

Those same long nights on occasions providing an IMAX window on the mysterious cosmos and all its wondrous beauty, including spectacular dancing Auroras. A mesmerising wonder of the natural world that us southerners only dream of witnessing.

Adding a flipside to that, the long, impossibly long summer days where the time needed to be active, soak up the abundant wildlife and breathe in the epic scenery is prolific. Even a drive to the shop becomes a visual feast for the soul, uncluttered by steep hills, trees or traffic.

The result of all this is a small, proud nation of ordinary people living ordinary lives, but better. More tuneful, more thoughtful, more community, more connection, more family and friends and finally, for me at least, seeing it all in action it became all so much clearer.

This is the still same world as mine but with nature’s glorious soundtrack played over the top of a droning reality and lifting its tune to a beautiful, seemingly surreal harmony.

Up Helly Aa is not created for the pictures. It is an inevitability. They do not pour their souls for months on end to create a fleeting news item or even a spectacle for visitors like me to post to social media. They just simply do it for themselves because that is who they are.

Up Helly Aa is the living, breathing embodiment of the marriage of Shetland and those that reside there and all that pride of putting on a world class spectacle, well they take that home with them to treasure.

This epiphany left me with just two simple but perhaps life changing conclusions. If the whole world had an Up Helly Aa experience it would be a much better world… sadly it never will and I guess, secondly, that if I had been lucky enough to be born a Shetlander, I would have been a much better man.

Lee Connett
Bream
Gloucestershire

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