Skip to main content

Beard protest inflames Shetlands Viking festival

By Simon Busch, CNN
updated 11:23 AM EST, Tue January 28, 2014
The Up Helly Aa festival, a celebration of the Shetland Islands' Viking heritage, kicked off Tuesday in the capital of the Scottish region, Lerwick. The Up Helly Aa festival, a celebration of the Shetland Islands' Viking heritage, kicked off Tuesday in the capital of the Scottish region, Lerwick.
HIDE CAPTION
Beards for bellowing with
Hairy protest
Fire season
Axes to grind
Torchlit procession
Ring of, yes, fire
Boat blaze
Pillager in training
Where's the mead?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Viking-themed fire festival kicks off in Shetland Islands
  • Two "Vikings" were banned from a local fire-fighting crew for refusing to shave
  • Ironic, because Up Helly Aa is pretty incendiary
  • A torchlit procession culminates in the immolation of a longboat

(CNN) -- A spectacular Viking-themed festival kicking off in the Scottish Shetland Islands Tuesday has been stoked by controversy after two participants refused to shave off their beards.

The men were preparing for the region's midwinter Up Helly Aa festival -- a highlight of the tourist calendar -- but their facial hair was judged incompatible with emergency breathing equipment they were obliged to don as fire fighters on their home island of Bressay.

The pair's stance has thus deprived the tiny isle of a fire team until the festivities wind up, the Scotsman reports.

The "beard protest" may testify to the significance of Up Helly Aa to the inhabitants of this remote group of islands strung out between the Scottish mainland and Norway.

Or it may point to the importance of beard size to Shetlands men.

Either way, it does seem risky to be without a fire crew amid a season of celebrations whose main event, taking place Tuesday in the Shetlands capital of Lerwick, is described by organizers as "Europe's largest fire festival."

Pyromaniacal delights

The fiery festival includes a torch-lit procession through town and culminates in the burning of a replica Viking longship -- all broadcast live online.

Up Helly Aa (it sounds best if you shout it) may commemorate the Shetlands' ancient Viking heritage -- hence the importance of big bushy beards -- but the festival itself began only a little more than a century ago.

It's the continuation of an older and even more fun-sounding bit of midwinter revelry that involved young men dragging burning tar barrels through their village and generally causing mischief.

When tar-barelling was banned, to the sound of much presumed Methodist tut-tutting, it was replaced in the 1880s by the tamer torch parades and other pieces of incendiary merriment that have continued to this day on the Shetlands, barring adjournments for the death of Queen Victoria and two world wars.

\
"Torch-uous" procession.

A jarl and his guizers

As part of Tuesday's Lerwick celebrations, a procession of up to a thousand torch-bearing "guisers" in Viking fancy dress are led through town by a head "jarl."

The party sets ablaze a mocked-up longship in what begs to be interpreted as an ambivalent commemoration of the raping and pillaging Scandinavian contribution to the local gene pool.

The jarl (it means "nobelman" in Old Norse; "guiser" means "disguised person" in Scots) sets the fashion tone for the parade with a costume handed down to his successor every year.

Its original items, the Up Helly Aa website records, included "a silver helmet, with raven's wings ... a corselet with sleeves of silver mail ... thigh-length black stockings and ... rawhide sandals fastened with tan leather thongs criss-crossed over the instep and all the way up the thighs."

One wonders what the Scottish equivalent of "I'm a lumberjack" is.

The jarl's "guiser squad" make their own weapons -- and grow their own beards -- throughout the year, including battle axes, swords, spears and crossbows.

Torch songs

They also do a lot of singing, with lines such as:

Worthy sons of Vikings make us
Truth be our encircling fire
Shadowy visions backward take us
To the Sea-King's fun'ral pyre.

No wonder authorities are worried about fire risks.

To return to which subject, a Shetlands safety board member, Allison Duncan, described the Bressay firefighters' refusal to lose their bushy symbols of Norse manhood -- thus "putting the safety of Bressay people at risk" -- as "crazy [and] mind-boggling."

The crewmen themselves, possibly too busy preparing their beards for the big day, could not be reached for comment.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:56 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Journals, luggage tags, Panama hats? Yawn. We've got a selection of gifts travelers will actually use.
updated 7:26 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Global events, new attractions and anniversary celebrations will put these destinations on travel radars next year. Question is, which one(s) to visit?
updated 7:48 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Of all Christmas traditions out there, one has an All-American pedigree: electric Christmas tree lights.
updated 9:51 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
The gateway to Japan's capital, Tokyo Station, is celebrating its centennial this month -- and it's never looked better.
updated 5:04 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
.
Looking for snow porn? This helicopter ski adventure will fly you into the Coast Mountains for the freshest runs.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
From Singapore to Norway, there are plenty of reasons to plan your next trip around a fabulous hotel opening its doors next year.
updated 4:25 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Step aside Mount Everest, this mountain country is home to cool cafes, crazy drinks and ancient Buddhist tradition.
updated 5:56 AM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Nonprofit Ethical Traveler has released its annual list of the developing countries doing the most to promote human rights and preserve their environments.
updated 5:36 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
These waterfront watering holes have killer ocean views, creative drinks and the mahalo vibe we demand.
updated 3:38 PM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Can't wait to book your ticket to Indianapolis and Oakland? The venerable guidebook is right there with you
updated 1:25 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
By helicopter, snowmobile and big-wheel truck across some of the world's most volatile landscapes.
updated 4:42 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Construction begins on a new Singapore airport complex that could make delays and layovers a pleasure.
updated 9:41 AM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Inflight chatterboxes are annoying but they're not the worst violators of onboard etiquette, according to an Expedia study.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT