Light your torches; time to burn a boat!


The idea of talking with a local to get to know the feel for the town one is visiting is not a new one. When there are language differences those conversations can be a bit more difficult, as we experienced this week in Lerwick, Scotland, up in the Shetland Islands. Even with everyone theoretically speaking “English” there were plenty of issues having a chat with folks. Still, one of the best conversations we had was with the guy working the front desk at our hostel. Jim was incredibly personable and friendly, overly outgoing and – most importantly – was able to fill us in on some local happenings that we quite certainly would have otherwise missed.

He quite simply asked if we were going to be going to the boat burning the following night. I’m pretty sure that the only acceptable answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” It certainly was our answer.


The Up-Helly-Aa celebration in the Shetland Islands has a relatively short history compared to the rest of the area. In the mid-1800s folks were known for taking a barrel of burning tar and running through the streets in the middle of the winter. You can imagine how well that worked out. But in the intervening 100+ years things have become a bit more stable and a bit more interesting as well. In homage to the Viking roots of the region the participants in the event dress the part, carrying swords and shields in addition to their torches as they parade through town.

The celebration is still held in the darkest, coldest part of the winter every year but this year an encore presentation was held at the end of June. Why a second performance? Probably because there were actually folks around to see it this time, among other reasons. Either way, I don’t really care. The “why” was much less significant than the “what” and the what was outright awesome.

Hundreds of locals and tourists gathered around the Clickimin Loch to watch hundreds more dressed in Viking costumes carry their torches around the lake and ultimately to light the sacrificial ship ablaze and watch it sink into the loch. There were a dozen or so “clans” of Vikings represented in the processional and the scene of the torches surrounding the lake and lighting up the not-particularly-dark mid-summer night sky was quite impressive.

The participants were having a great time from what we saw. There was singing, chanting and general euphoria throughout the group. Sure there was the one guy who came over to his parents in the crowd (just happened to be standing next to me) and traded in his sword and shield for a digital camera to document the event, but many others stayed fully in character. And they were all having a blast.

I’m not so sure that the event is enough to justify a trip to Lerwick, Scotland in the otherwise dreary, dull and dark days of January, but getting to mix it in with the great weather and late-night sun in June doesn’t suck at all. And I have Jim to thank for making sure that we saw it.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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