The traditional start of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) begins with a daring Viking raid on a monastery in the British Isles. This raid on Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England, was certainly not the first time the British suffered under the Viking sword.
Whilst much has been made about England's Viking history (after all, a huge swathe of the country was under "Danish law" and Viking rule), Scotland often gets less historical limelight than its southern neighbor.
What started as opportunistic raids throughout coastal communities in Scotland, throughout the 7th and 8th centuries CE, changed from the 9th century CE.
The location of the many Scottish islands provided bases for encampment for Vikings for further incursions into the northern British Isles.
Furthermore, islands like the Shetlands or Orkneys – halfway between the Norwegian coast and the north of the British Isles were soon subjugated under Viking rule.
Norse settlers soon replaced the Celtic elite on these islands, and their topographic and linguistic presence lives on to this day.
The Scottish Viking experience is unlike any other in Europe due to its longevity. Whilst the traditional end of the "Viking Age" is normally marked as the beginning of the Norman invasion of the British Isles (c. 1066 CE), the Viking presence lingered longer in Scotland than in any other European country.
It wasn't until the mid-13th century that the last Viking raid took place on mainland Scotland (at Largs in 1283 CE), whilst the Norse presence on the islands lasted into the reign of James III of Scotland into the late 15th century CE.
A dark and dreary winter's night
From a distance of more than a millennium, since the final Viking ship set sail, it is fascinating to see just how pervasive the Viking legacy is throughout Scottish culture.
Aside from the more obvious topographic names scattered throughout the Shetlands, Orkneys, and Hebrides, there is also the fact that a language related to Old Norse (Norn) was spoken by some right up until its extinction in the mid-19th century CE.
Yet come wintertime, there is a marriage of Scottish and Viking traditions that is sure to brighten any dark and dreary winter's night.
One of the more famous festivals celebrated on a dark and dreary winter's night is Yule. This winter festival was traditionally celebrated by Germanic peoples – including peoples in Viking societies – and can be traced back to the early North Germanic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE).
It has been connected to the period between mid-November and January and is believed to celebrate, amongst other things, the Old Norse God Odin. Since the advent of Christianity in Scotland, from the 5th to 10th centuries CE, there has been an intertwining of Christmas and "Yuletide" traditions.
Over the past two decades, there has been a resurgence in interest in Viking fire festivals which have been held to mark the end of Yuletide, the end of the dark, long winter night, and the anticipated coming of spring.
On the Scottish island of Shetland, there is an event bigger than a combination of Christmas and New Year: the festival of Up Helly Aa. Photo: Andrew J Shearer / Shutterstock
From tar barreling to torchlit processions
On the Scottish island of Shetland, there is an event that is bigger than a combination of Christmas and New Year: the festival of Up Helly Aa.
This annual festival has a recent invention, though, dating back to the early 19th century CE, in the period just after the Napoleonic Wars.
To brighten up those dark Shetland nights, barrels of tar were set alight and rolled through the streets, accompanied by much mischief-making, shenanigans, and hijinx.
Over the course of the late 19th century, however, this festival took a decidedly Viking turn. With tar barreling ceasing in popularity (not many towns would want boiling barrels of tar rolling down their streets), many in Shetland decided to take inspiration from their proud Viking history.
Locals opted for a torchlit procession (the first was approved in 1881), and this was institutionalized during a visit from the son of the then British Queen and Empress Victoria, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, to the islands in 1882.
It was only after the publication of the book, The Viking Path: The Coming of The White Christ (available to buy on Amazon, here), by local Shetland author Haldane Burgess, in 1894, that the festival took on its Viking heritage.
The publication of his novel, which was set in both Norway and Shetland during the Christianization of Scandinavia, in the early medieval period, stirred up interest in the islands about their Viking history and heritage.
Since then, the Up Helly Aa (normally translated as "Up Holy Day All" - something akin to "The End of Holy Time For All" - the "Holy Time" being Yuletide or the Christmas Season) has transformed into an annual celebration of the islands proud Viking heritage.
The climax of the torchlit procession is when each guizer throws their torches onto the ship. Photo: Andrew J Shearer / Shutterstock
Jarls and Viking armor
The festival now revolves around a torchlit procession through the streets of villages, towns, and communities in Shetland, with the largest taking place in the islands' capital, Lerwick.
There, over 1,000 torchbearers organized into gangs (named "guizers") wind their way through the center of Lerwick to proceed to a replica Viking longship.
These squads proudly dress in Viking-era clothing, and the whole procession is led by a Guizer Jarl (a nod to the Shetland's Viking political roots) who has his (or her) own squad of 50 – 70 guizer torchbearers.
Careful attention and detail are given to selecting historically correct clothing, with the Guizer Jarl donning a full suit of Viking-era armor, which dates back almost a century - it was fashioned in the 1930s.
The day starts with the guizers marching into the center of Lerwick (or the local communities) to read "The Bill" - a list of details for the day.
However, the fun does not start until the sun sets (which, for this time of the year in the northern reaches of the British Isles, is usually mid-afternoon), and then the torchlight procession takes place.
The climax of the torchlit procession is when each guizer throws their torches, in a spiral formation, onto the ship. As the ship disappears into the flames, often wishes and offerings are given to any God in the pantheon of Old Norse religion.
Vikings and non-Vikings alike then often head off to whet their whistle long into the wee hours of the morning. The following day, luckily for those Vikings who enjoy the revelry a bit too hard, is a public holiday.
Unfortunately, several festivals have been plagued by the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (even Vikings had to practice safe social distancing).
Though the sun set centuries ago on the Viking Age, there is a small slice of Scotland where, every year, the Viking Age begins only when the sun has set.
The BBC has an article on this year's Up Helly Aa Festival, including photos and videos, available here, while more information on the Shetland Island's fire festivals can be found here.
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