The Shetland Islands may be a part of Scotland and the UK, but rather than having Celtic, Saxon or Norman heritage like the vast majority of the UK's 61 million inhabitants, they have a Viking one. And every year, Shetlanders celebrate their Norse heritage in spectacular fashion.

The Up Helly Aa festival takes place on the last Tuesday of January each year.

Around 900 costumed 'guizers', complete with winged helmets, sheepskins and axes and shields, took to the streets of Lerwick, the islands' largest town, to recreate the town's ancient past.

The guizers drag a Viking longship through the streets of the town before setting fire to it.

The Shetlands are the most northerly part of the UK. They were once a part of Norway but became a part of Scotland only in 1468 as a result of squabbles between the Norwegians and Scots over who should own them. As a result, the Shetlanders don't consider themselves to be Scottish and retain their Norse heritage - indeed, many of them don't trust the Scots. One of the Shetland Islanders' favourite mottos is: "Scotland is the land of bad grain and greedy ministers" and many have expressed a desire that, should Scotland break away from the UK, then the islands should become a part of England.

The nearby Orkney Islands also used to be Norwegian.

Hundreds of 'Vikings' light Scottish town in blaze of glory as they take to the streets for Britain's biggest fire festival

By Daily Mail Reporter
27th January 2010
Daily Mail

A long way from London: The Shetland Islands - or "Hjaltland" in Old Norse - are the most northerly part of the UK. They were part of Norway until 1468 and retain a distinct Norse culture

Hundreds of 'Vikings' have stormed the streets in Britain's biggest fire festival.

The Up Helly Aa festival celebrates Shetland's Norse heritage on the last Tuesday of January each year.

Around 900 costumed 'guizers', complete with winged helmets, sheepskins and axes and shields, took to the streets of Lerwick last night to recreate the town's ancient past.

Members of the Viking Jarl Squad surround their leader on a Viking galley ship during the festival

A Jarl is silhouetted in front of the burning viking ship

The horde, all bearing flaming torches, dragged a Viking longship through the town, before setting fire to it.

The events were presided over by the chief Viking, the Guizer Jarl, who is elected every year from among the 60-strong Jarl squad.

This year Rae Simpson donned a white reindeer cloak to play Danish Chieftain, Sigurd 'Snake Eye' Ragnarsson.

The faces of the Jarls are bathed in light from the fire as they watch the ship burn

Speaking about seeing the longship, which his team had been constructing since October, go up in flames, Mr Simpson said: 'This is what weve been working towards since October and its a huge job so theres never any time to stop and think about how its going to end.

'I dont really stop working until the jarl climbs on board ready to torch her, then Ill take a few minutes to think about the job weve done.'

The Jarls sing and dance as they gather around the fire

The remainder of the night was spent at an assortment of parties in the town of Lerwick.

Slovakian pair Andrea Skutova and Marek Mojzis admitted they weren't sure what to expect from the unusual festival, but were pleasantly surprised.

Shetland - known as the archaic Zetland until 1970 - had been part of Norway for 600 years until in 1469, King Christian I of Norway mortgaged the Shetland Islands to the Scottish crown to raise part of the dowry for the marriage of his daughter Margaret to King James III of Scotland. Hed done the same with Orkney less than a year earlier. James III went on to annex Shetland to the Scottish crown in 1472. Attempts by Denmark to take Shetland back didnt succeed, nor did Denmark accept offers by Scotland, in the early 16th century, to return the islands in exchange for military support. The islands' language, too, changed; it became essentially Scots but with many borrowings from Old Norse. Scottish landowners moved in, too. Norse laws were not banned and replaced by Scots laws until 1611. The Shetlands then became a part of the UK in 1707 when Scotland joined the Union. The islands cover an area of 566 sq miles and have a population of 22,000. Because of their Norse heritage, the Shetlanders do not consider themselves to be Scottish, and hate the way they are often treated by the Scots. The Shetlanders call Scotland "The land of bad grain and greedy ministers." Indeed, the devolved Scottish Government is so ignorant of Shetland that, during its drive to re-introduce Gaelic to many parts of Scotland, it included the Shetlands in its plans, even though the islands native language was Old Norse, or Norn, which was spoken there until the early 18th century when it was replaced by Scots. Gaelic has never been spoken on the islands. Many Shetlanders have expressed their desire that, if Scotland were to one day become independent from the rest of the UK, they would like their islands to become part of England.

Miss Skutova, 32, said: 'Weve never been to Shetland, let alone Up Helly Aa, but its something weve always wanted to do. Its a fantastic night and well be continuing the celebrations in the town hall afterwards.'

Crowds of festival-goers dressed in traditional Viking costumes gather round the longship before it is set alight

Shetland, and neighbouring Orkney, were ruled by the Norse for about 500 years until they became part of Scotland in 1468.

The festival stems from the 1870s when a group of young local men wanted to put new ideas into Shetland's Christmas celebrations.

Young children are also invited to be part of the festival

Members of the Jarl squad cheer as they enjoy the festivities

Last edited by Blackleaf; Jan 31st, 2010 at 01:55 PM..