A Look Inside Scotland's Massive Viking Festival That Happens Every Year

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When most people hear "Viking festival in Scotland," the associations are immediate: bonfires, mead, bagpipes, hardcore Pagan partying, and perhaps even public sex or ebulliently bizarre funeral rites. (Or wedding rites, for that matter). But what, specifically, is the Up Helly AA Festival? It's an ancient winter festival designed to usher in the end of the Yule season, and it's held annually in the Shetland Islands.

According to Up Helly Aa's website, the Viking ritual involves all the usual merrymaking and imbibing, but culminates in:

"The world famous torchlit procession [that] typically consists of nearly one thousand guizers who carry their Torches through the town, following the Galley along the route towards its fiery end and Valhalla. The route is lined with spectators, who on a good night may number over five thousand strong, cheering at the guizers as they pass by."

After the beautifully painted galley is marched through the streets, it is torched, burned to the ground – and then the partying begins. The tradition is technically religious, but nowadays, it mostly seems to be about the manifold joys of pyromania and carousing.

What does the name 'Up Helly AA' mean? According to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, the word "up" derives from the Old Norse word uppi, which is used to describe something coming to an end. "Helly" is a term for a festival or "holy day," and "a" generally means "all."

To feast your eyes on a rowdy... and rousing... collection of Up Helly AA photos, read on.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY