This Festival Of Fire In Scotland Is A Tradition Unlike Any Other

When you think of Scotland, there are a few things that probably come to mind. You might think of their thick accents, as well as the castles dotting the countryside or legendary local cryptids like the Loch Ness monster. The Scots have plenty of traditions that might seem a bit out of place, like kilts and bagpipes or their love of the unicorn. But one of their biggest festivals actually focuses on something you probably don't associate with the country at all: Viking crusaders.

That's right. In the heart of the Shetland islands, the Scots gather once a year to celebrate the history and culture of Vikings through a holiday known as Up Helly Aa. The festival itself is full of drama and theatrics, from dressing up in intricate period costumes to setting a longboat on fire (via Up Helly Aa). For a day, the people of the island take a holiday to drink, dance and celebrate, and the event should be on everyone's bucket list.

The unexpected origins of a Viking holiday

Up Helly Aa is the result of centuries of celebrations. It's celebrated in late January each year, and is often associated with Christmastime (via The Vintage News). The fires and celebrations started as part of an effort to chase away the winter blues and celebrate the end of Yule season. It's gone through a number of changes since those early days, though. In the 1800s, for example, young men in the town would run through town with flaming tar barrels as part of the festivities — an activity that was quickly banned due to the safety risks, according to The Vintage News.

Nowadays, the holiday is extensively organized. Celebrations take place all over the islands, with the main festivities occuring in the town of Lerwick (via Up Helly Aa). A head Viking, or Jarl, leads his troops through the streets of town to light a longboat on fire. After songs have been sung and the ritual is completed, participants will go off to private parties all over town for food and drink and good company. The event has only been canceled a handful of times throughout its history, although in recent years it's been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Holdovers from a different time

Just as there are longstanding traditions regarding what songs to sing and how to proceed with the march, Up Helly Aa includes what might seem like outdated restrictions on who can participate and how. Only men have been allowed to participate in the largest Viking procession in Lerwick, according to Afar Magazine, and women are expected to spend their days preparing for the parties that follow. Rural towns and smaller festivals have rolled back those restrictions, but if you want to go to the biggest show on the islands, you'll definitely see the divide.

With that said, though, some steps have been taken to modernize the festivities. There are special events throughout the day for younger kids who might not be able to go to the final festival, according to Finding the Universe. And, perhaps more importantly, the day following the festival is a holiday for the people of the Shetland islands. That way they can recover, and maybe get a head start on their planning for next year.