The main reason for my trip north to Scotland was to attend the Up Helly Aa festival. The organisers describe Up Helly Aa as ‘Europe’s largest fire festival’. The festival takes on the last Tuesday in January. The location for the festival is Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands. It seemed a long way to travel for just the festival so I took a week off for a proper tour of Scotland. Since the ferry to Lerwick would leave from Aberdeen I decided to include a visit the Cairngorms too.
And so one Friday evening a group of us left London. We spent the night in Carlisle before arriving in Aviemore on Saturday afternoon. That very weekend Aviemore was hosting the annual Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain Sled Dog Rally. With all the recent snow we have had it seemed the perfect place to visit. Apparently the last time the event had taken place in snow was 1995!
On Sunday afternoon we had to leave Aviemore and head to Aberdeen for our overnight ferry to Lerwick. It turned out to be a rough crossing and a few of us were seasick. Fortunately our cabins were near the middle of the boat where the motion was much less. As a result I had a very good nights sleep.
The ferry docked in Lerwick early on Monday morning and a blustery day was spent exploring the rugged coastline in the south of the island. The places we visited included Sumburgh Head, Bigton and Jarlshof. Jarlshof is considered to be an important archaeological site, with remains of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Viking settlements.
Up Helly Aa festival
Tuesday was festival day. Around a thousand local men take part, forming squads that don costumes. Preparations for celebrations and routines that takes place in halls across Lerwick were underway. The main squad consists of about 40-50 Vikings who march through the streets during the day with brass bands. They stop to visit schools, hospitals and public buildings.
Once night falls people begin to gather at the burn site where a Viking Galley is placed. Squads congregate in their costumes to collect their fire torches before marching in the streets close to the Galley singing Up Helly Aa songs. The men then circle around the galley, the air thick with the smell of paraffin. They then throw their torches into the galley, setting is ablaze. Once the outdoor festivities were over it was time to head to The British Legion for dancing and live music.
Wednesday was to be our last day on The Shetlands and so we decided to explore the north of the island. Some of the islands that make up the Shetlands can only be reached by taking another ferry. Since we did not have time for another ferry trip we only visited Brae, Esherness and Muckle Roe. It was extremely windy which is not uncommon here. These islands really are rather exposed! As the light began to fade it was time to think about making our way back to Lerwick to catch our ferry. Mercifully, despite a forecast to the contrary the return crossing seemed calmer and I was not seasick.
Cairngorm Sleddog Centre
Once back in Aberdeen we headed back to Aviemore to visit the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre. It’s a remote cottage where owners Alan and Fiona Stewart live. The Stewart family are fanatical about Sleddog racing. Their son John is due to take part in The Iditarod, a 1,150 mile race that takes place in Alaska. The Stewart’s have about 40 dogs at the centre, all of whom live outside the cottage in fenced areas.
A few of the dogs are purebred Siberian Huskies but most are Alaskan Huskies which make the best sleddog racers apparently. Many of the best dogs are cross between Husky and German Short Hair Pointer. During our visit we met many of the dogs, some of which have raced at the highest level. We even had the chance to meet some puppies which could well be part of a future Iditarod team. The climax of our visit was a sleddog trip in the forest which the dogs seem to eagerly look forward to. They howl with excitement when they realise it’s time for work!
Friday was to be our last day in Scotland. A few in the group wanted to go skiing at the local slopes. Whilst not of the standard of the European Alps, this part of Scotland does still offer local skiers and boarders the chance to enjoy themselves.
Scotland in January had given us some fun experiences and memories but come Saturday morning it was time to begin the long drive back to London.