The north of Scotland is a pretty bleak place in January, when the sun barely manages to crawl above the horizon and it's pitch dark by 4 p.m. And nowhere is quite as bleak as the wind-blown, tree-less Shetland islands, which lie on the same latitude as Alaska.
Hence the desire for a bit of mid-winter fun to relieve those long nights. And the Shetlanders, who have something of a reputation as party animals, do it in style. They burn a replica Viking longboat in the mid-winter tradition known as Up-Helly-Aa, Europe's largest and most spectacular fire festival.
Up-Helly-Aa actually refers to a number of festivals which take place around the archipelago's 15 inhabited islands on the last Tuesday of January. But the main event takes place in Shetland's main town, Lerwick, which is located on the island known as Mainland.
The highlight of the festival is a procession of around 1,000 "guizers," wearing fancy dress and carrying torches, through the streets of Lerwick along a prescribed route in the evening of Up-Helly-Aa day. A replica of a Viking galley, complete with a dragon's head on its prow and a flag depicting a black raven, heads the procession mounted on a float.
At the head of the parade is Guizer Jarl, a prestigious position selected each year from the members of the Up-Helly-Aa "Committee." To be selected, one must have been a member for at least 15 years -- and be a man. Guizer Jarl's squad dresses as Vikings and spends the day visiting schools, hospitals and retirement homes in the town before leading the evening procession.
At the climax of the festival, the galley is brought to a halt in a local park. The guizers surround the boat and sing the traditional "Galley Song." Then, after a series of ceremonial "three cheers" have been called, the squads throw their torches into the galley -- which has taken months to build -- and the whole thing goes up in flames.
But the fun doesn't stop there. After the procession, the squads descend on 12 local schools and public halls for a night of highly organized drinking and revelry known as "the halls." The squads of guizers have to visit each of the halls in turn, where each group performs a skit. Often the skits are a merciless satire on local events, with politicians being a particular target. The fun continues until 8 o'clock the next morning. Unsurprisingly, the next day is a public holiday in Lerwick.
One of the most bizarre elements of the tradition is a public proclamation known as the "Bill," which is erected at the Market Cross in the center of Lerwick early on the morning of the day of Up-Helly-Aa. In the text, which is written by a "Joke Committee," the Guizer Jarl ceremoniously proclaims the calling of Up-Helly-Aa. The Bill also lampoons local events of the last 12 months in a bizarre satirical style which is obscure to outsiders. The text is signed by the Guizer Jarl and bears his seal with the slogan "We Axe For What We Want."
Shetland, which lies some 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of the Scottish mainland, belonged to Norway up until the 15th century and the Norse influence can still be felt there. Culturally it's distinct from Scotland and the islanders have a strong sense of their own identity.
The tradition attracts thousands of tourists each year and is also an excuse for Shetlanders living in mainland Scotland or further afield to return home for a visit, helping keep the extensive Shetland diaspora in contact.
But despite the commonly held notion that Up-Helly-Aa represents some kind of holdover from pagan Viking times, it is actually a relatively new invention. The festival dates back to the 1870s and 1880s and developed out of the practice of mischievous local youths dragging burning tar barrels around the town as part of a tradition of performing elaborate pranks around the Christmas season. After authorities clamped down on the Yuletide mischief, the practice became more organized and locals began holding torchlit processions. The boat came later.