Viking history and culture: Shetland celebrates Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival

While I was preoccupied with the past history of the Vikings, the Shetland Isles in northern Scotland were busy celebrating their own connection and Viking heritage!

Shetland’s annual Up Helly Aa fire festival has been celebrated, culminating in the burning of a replica Viking ship.

The spectacular event celebrating Shetland’s Viking heritage was held in Lerwick on Tuesday.

A band of latter-day Viking warriors known as the Jarl Squad marched through the town, recreating its history.

Hundreds processed with flaming torches which were thrown into a longship that had been dragged through Lerwick.

Volunteers had built the boat and produced more than 1,000 torches, with preparations for the event beginning in October.

 

Up helly Aa Viking festival on shetland Isles Up hely Aa festivalup helly Aa festival

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-30999590

Up Helly Aa (/ˈʌphɛliə/ UP-he-lee-ə) refers to any of a variety of fire festivals held in Shetland, in Scotland, annually in the middle of winter to mark the end of the yule season. The festival involves a procession of up to a thousand guizers in Lerwick and considerably lower numbers in the more rural festivals, formed into squads who march through the town or village in a variety of themed costumes.

The current Lerwick celebration grew out of the older yule tradition of tar barrelling which took place at Christmas and New Year as well as Up Helly Aa. Squads of young men would drag barrels of burning tar through town on sledges, making mischief. After the abolition of tar barrelling around 1874–1880, permission was eventually obtained for torch processions. The first yule torch procession took place in 1876. The first torch celebration on Up Helly Aa day took place in 1881. The following year the torchlit procession was significantly enhanced and institutionalised through a request by a Lerwick civic body to hold another Up Helly Aa torch procession for the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh.  The first galley was introduced and burned in 1889.

There is a main guizer who is dubbed the “Jarl“. There is a committee which a person must be part of for 15 years before one can be a jarl, and only one person is elected to this committee each year.

The procession culminates in the torches being thrown into a replica Viking longship or galley. The event happens all over Shetland and is currently celebrated at ten locations – Scalloway, Lerwick, Nesting and Girlsta, Uyeasound, Northmavine, Bressay, Cullivoe, Norwick, the South Mainland and Delting.

After the procession, the squads visit local halls (including schools, sports facilities and hotels), where private parties are held. At each hall, each squad performs its act, which may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing.

According to John Jamieson‘s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1818),  up is used in the sense of something being at an end, and derives from the Old Norse word uppi which is still used in Faroese and Icelandic, while helly refers to a holy day or festival. The Scottish National Dictionary defines helly, probably derived from the Old Norse helgr (helgi in the dative and accusative case, meaning a holiday or festival), as “[a] series of festive days, esp. the period in which Christmas festivities are held from 25th Dec. to 5th Jan.”,  while aa may represent a’, meaning “all

Up Helly Aa Official website:  

http://www.uphellyaa.org/

Heritage: Up Helly Aa is a chance for multiple generations on the Shetland Isles to celebrate their Norse heritage!

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2929223/Vikings-descend-Shetlands-Hundreds-fire-wielding-visitors-march-town-annual-Helly-Aa-festival-marking-Islands-ancient-past.html#ixzz3Q6yznygF

up helly Aa fest2 up helly Aa fest3 up helly Aa fest4

 

Shetland (/ˈʃɛtlənd/; Scottish Gaelic: Sealtainn), also called the Shetland Islands, is a subarctic archipelago of Scotland that lies north-east of the island of Great Britain and forms part of the United Kingdom.

Shetland-Islands-006 shetland

The islands lie some 80 km (50 mi) to the northeast of Orkney and 280 km (170 mi) southeast of the Faroe Islands and form part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. The total area is 1,468 km  (567 sq mi)[1] and the population totalled 23,167 in 2011.  Comprising the Shetland constituency of the Scottish Parliament, Shetland is also one of the 32 council areas of Scotland; the islands’ administrative centre and only burgh is Lerwick.

Humans have lived there since the Mesolithic period, and the earliest written references to the islands date back to Roman times. The early historic period was dominated by Scandinavian influences, especially Norway, and the islands did not become part of Scotland until the 15th century. When Shetland became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, trade with northern Europe decreased.

The local way of life reflects the joint Norse and Scottish heritage including the Up Helly Aa fire festival, and a strong musical tradition, especially the traditional fiddle style. The islands have produced a variety of writers of prose and poetry, many of whom use the local Shetlandic dialect.

The islands’ motto, which appears on the Council’s coat of arms, is Með lögum skal land byggja. This Icelandic phrase is taken from Njáls saga and means “By law shall the land be built up.

In AD 43 and 77 the Roman authors Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder referred to the seven islands they call Haemodae and Acmodae respectively, both of which are assumed to be Shetland. Another possible early written reference to the islands is Tacitus‘ report in AD 98, after describing the discovery and conquest of Orkney, that the Roman fleet had seen “Thule, too”. In early Irish literature, Shetland is referred to as Inse Catt—”the Isles of Cats”, which may have been the pre-Norse inhabitants’ name for the islands. The Cat tribe also occupied parts of the northern Scottish mainland and their name can be found in Caithness, and in the Gaelic name for Sutherland (Cataibh, meaning “among the Cats”).

The oldest version of the modern name Shetland is Hetlandensis, the Latinised adjectival form of the Old Norse name recorded in a letter from Harald count of Shetland in 1190,  becoming Hetland in 1431 after various intermediate transformations. It is possible that the Pictish “cat” sound forms part of this Norse name. It then became Hjaltland in the 16th century.

As Norn was gradually replaced by Scots, Hjaltland became Ȝetland. The initial letter is the Middle Scots letter, “yogh“, the pronunciation of which is almost identical to the original Norn sound, “/hj/“. When the use of the letter yogh was discontinued, it was often replaced by the similar-looking letter z, hence Zetland, the misspelt form used to describe the pre-1975 county council.

Most of the individual islands have Norse names, although the derivations of some are obscure and may represent pre-Norse, possibly Pictish or even pre-Celtic names or elements.

 

Due to the practice, dating to at least the early Neolithic, of building in stone on virtually treeless islands, Shetland is extremely rich in physical remains of the prehistoric eras and there are over 5,000 archaeological sites all told.  A midden site at West Voe on the south coast of Mainland, dated to 4320–4030 BC, has provided the first evidence of Mesolithic human activity on Shetland.  The same site provides dates for early Neolithic activity and finds at Scord of Brouster in Walls have been dated to 3400 BC.  “Shetland knives” are stone tools that date from this period made from felsite from Northmavine.

Pottery shards found at the important site of Jarlshof also indicate that there was Neolithic activity there although the main settlement dates from the Bronze Age. This includes a smithy, a cluster of wheelhouses and a later broch. The site has provided evidence of habitation during various phases right up until Viking times.  Heel-shaped cairns, are a style of chambered cairn unique to Shetland, with a particularly large example on Vementry.

Numerous brochs were erected during the Iron Age. In addition to Mousa there are significant ruins at Clickimin, Culswick, Old Scatness and West Burrafirth, although their origin and purpose is a matter of some controversy.  The later Iron Age inhabitants of the Northern Isles were probably Pictish, although the historical record is sparse. Hunter (2000) states in relation to King Bridei I of the Picts in the sixth century AD: “As for Shetland, Orkney, Skye and the Western Isles, their inhabitants, most of whom appear to have been Pictish in culture and speech at this time, are likely to have regarded Bridei as a fairly distant presence.”  In 2011, the collective site, “The Crucible of Iron Age Shetland“, including Broch of Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof, joined the UKs “Tentative List” of World Heritage Sites.

 

The expanding population of Scandinavia led to a shortage of available resources and arable land there and led to a period of Viking expansion, the Norse gradually shifting their attention from plundering to invasion.  Shetland was colonised during the late 8th and 9th centuries,  the fate of the existing indigenous population being uncertain. Modern Shetlanders have almost identical proportions of Scandinavian matrilineal and patrilineal genetic ancestry, suggesting that the islands were settled by both men and women in equal measure.

Vikings then made the islands the headquarters of pirate expeditions carried out against Norway and the coasts of mainland Scotland. In response, Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre (“Harald Fair Hair”) annexed the Northern Isles (comprising Orkney and Shetland) in 875.  Rognvald Eysteinsson received Orkney and Shetland from Harald as an earldom as reparation for the death of his son in battle in Scotland, and then passed the earldom on to his brother Sigurd the Mighty.

The islands were Christianised in the late 10th century. King Olav Tryggvasson summoned the jarl Sigurd the Stout during a visit to Orkney and said, “I order you and all your subjects to be baptised. If you refuse, I’ll have you killed on the spot and I swear I will ravage every island with fire and steel.” Unsurprisingly, Sigurd agreed and the islands became Christian at a stroke.  Unusually, from c. 1100 onwards the Norse jarls owed allegiance both to Norway and to the Scottish crown through their holdings as Earls of Caithness.

In 1194, when Harald Maddadsson was Earl of Orkney and Shetland, a rebellion broke out against King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway. The Øyskjeggs (“Island Beardies”) sailed for Norway but were beaten in the Battle of Florvåg near Bergen. After his victory King Sverre placed Shetland under direct Norwegian rule, a state of affairs that continued for nearly two centuries.

What is important to remember in any discussion of Viking history and about these islands it that while we tend to group all of the Vikings into one singular category, there were actually two separate groups of Viking invaders and raiders.  This map shows a basic representation of those groups and where they sought out territories. The Norse Vikings followed paths to Northern Scotland and Ireland, including the Shetland and Orkney Isles, and from Ireland they raided the western coasts of Britain. The Dane Vikings followed a more southern path in historical accounts, landing them in southern Britain, northern Germany, and eventually parts of France.  I have made mention of this aspect before in discussions of the Vikings saga and their landing at Lindisfarne. It was more likely that it was Norse Vikings landing there in 793 than Ragnar and his Danish Vikings! But, understandably, the Lindisfarne event did provide a good story point for Michael Hirst to use in developing the Vikings story line.

Lindisfarne793

In a more accurate look and comparison of the two groups, The Norse Vikings were more successful in their conquest of the northern areas. They maintained control of the Orkneys and the Shetland Isles until the 1400s. The Dane Vikings were successful in the southern portions for a much shorter length of time. Their demise came with the death of the Danish king Cnut in 1035.

Cnut the Great  (Old Norse: Knútr inn ríki;  c. 985 or 995 – 12 November 1035), more commonly known as Canute, was a king of Denmark, England, Norway, and parts of Sweden, together often referred to as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. After his death, the deaths of his heirs within a decade, and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was largely lost to history. Historian Norman Cantor has made the statement that he was “the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history”, despite not being Anglo-Saxon. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cnut_the_Great

Cnut the great

Cnut the great

 

One interesting theory and legend about the Shetland isles does connect to Ragnar Lodbrok and  Rollo of history, but not necessarily Ragnar or Rollo of the Vikings saga!

Rognvald Eysteinsson (fl. 865) sometimes referred to with the bynames of “the Wise” or “the Powerful” was the Earl of  Møre in Norway and a key figure in the founding of the Earldom of Orkney. Three quite different sources for the creation of the Norse earldom on Orkney and Shetland exist. The best known are those in the Norse Sagas but older evidence is found in the Historia Norvegiae and the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. This last source refers to a “Ragnall son of Albdan” who was active in Orkney in 865. The Historia includes a brief reference to Rognvald, which events are also referred to in the saga material.

The saga sources have much to say about Rognvald, his relationship to the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, his brother and sons, and the founding of the Orkney and Møre earldoms. However, these are not contemporary, having been written down some three centuries after the events described, and must be treated with considerable care.

The oldest account that may refer to Rognvald and the earldom of Orkney is that found in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland.

The annals make Rognvald the son of “Halfdan, King of Lochlann.” This is generally understood to mean Halfdan the Black, which would make the Rognvald of the annals the brother of Harald Fairhair. However, the later Norse sagas claim that Rognvald’s grandfather was named Halfdan.

These events are placed after an account of the devastation of Fortriu, dated to around 866, and the mention of an eclipse confirms a date of 865. The entry goes on to describe Ragnall’s older sons raiding in Spain and North Africa but there is no specific mention of the earldom and it is by no means certain that this Ragnall is to be identified with Rognvald Eysteinsson. Runic inscriptions found inside Maeshowe dating to the 12th century mention that the mound was “built before Loðbrók”, perhaps meaning Ragnar Lodbrok and it has been suggested that the Irish fragment may refer to this legendary 9th century saga character.

Norse sagas

“Snorri Sturluson”, 13th century compiler of the Heimskringla by Christian Krohg (1890s)

The saga accounts are the best known, and the latest, of the three surviving traditions concerning Rognvald and the foundation of the Earldom of Orkney. Written, long after the events they describe, their contents must be treated with caution as a literal or accurate version of history.

In the Orkneyinga saga Rognvald was made the Earl of Møre by King Harald Fairhair. The Heimskringla recounts that Rognvald caused Harald Fairhair to be given his byname by cutting and dressing his hair, which had been uncut for ten years on account of his vow never to cut it until he was ruler of all Norway.  Rognvald then accompanied the king on a great military expedition. First the islands of Shetland and Orkney were cleared of vikings who had been raiding Norway and then continued on to Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. During this campaign Rognvald’s son Ivarr was killed and in compensation Harald granted Rognvald Orkney and Shetland. Rognvald himself returned to Norway, giving the northern isles to his brother Sigurd Eysteinsson.  Sigurd had been the forecastleman on Harald’s ship and after sailing back east the king “gave Sigurd the title of earl”.  The Heimskringla states specifically that Sigurd was the first Earl of Orkney.

Family

The Orkneyinga saga says that Rognvald was the son of Eystein Ivarsson, himself the son of Ívarr Upplendingajarl.  and was married to a daughter of Hrólfr Nose called Ragnhild,  although in the Heimskringla she is called Hild.  Their son Hrólfr “was so big that no horse could carry him”, hence his byname of “Ganger-Hrólf”,  and he is identified by the saga writers with Rollo of Normandy ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy  who signed the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte with King Charles the Simple in 911. In addition to Ivar and Hrólfr, both sagas also refer to Rognvald’s son Thorir the Silent, and three more sons “by concubines” called Hallad, Einarr and Hrollaug, all three being “grown men when their brothers born in marriage were still children”.

Rognvald having given his earldom to Sigurd, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, the latter died in a curious fashion after a battle with Máel Brigte of Moray. Sigurd’s son Gurthorm ruled for a single winter after this and died childless.

Rognvald’s son Hallad then inherited the title. However, unable to constrain Danish raids on Orkney, he gave up the earldom and returned to Norway, which “everyone thought was a huge joke.”[19] The predations of the Danish pirates led to Rognvald flying into a rage and summoning his sons Thorir and Hrolluag. He predicted that Thorir’s path would keep him in Norway and that Hrolluag was destined seek his fortune in Iceland. Turf-Einar, the youngest, then came forward and offered to go to the islands. Rognvald said: “Considering the kind of mother you have, slave-born on each side of her family, you are not likely to make much of a ruler. But I agree, the sooner you leave and the later you return the happier I’ll be.”

His father’s misgivings notwithstanding, Torf-Einarr succeeded in defeating the Danes and founded a dynasty which retained control of the islands for centuries after his death.

Death and legacy

Earl Rognvald was killed by King Harald’s son Halfdan Hålegg and Gudrod Gleam who engineered a sudden attack, surrounded the house in which he was staying, and burned it to the ground with the earl and sixty of his men inside it. Harald “flew into a rage” when he heard about this and sent out a “great force” against Gudrod who was then banished. Halfdan escaped into the western seas and Rognvald’s death was later avenged by Torf-Einarr who killed him on North Ronaldsay and then made his peace with Harald. Harald made Rognvald’s son Thorir Earl of Møre and gave his daughter Alof to him in marriage.   The sagas thus identify Rognvald as the apical figure of the Norse Earls of Orkney who controlled the islands until the early 13th century, and a forerunner of important Icelandic families. Furthermore, through his son Hrolfr Rognvald he is an ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy who, following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, became the kings of England.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rognvald_Eysteinsson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Viking history and culture: Shetland celebrates Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival

  1. I am in the process of researching my ancestry and have linked in big time to the Scandinavians! Ragnvald and many other Jarls/Earls of Orkney are included in my direct lines. I am so glad that Snorri, the Orkneylinga, and the many other sagas have left a record – sometimes a bit hyped or ‘imaginative’ – of their antics. If my health allowed I would love to pop up to ‘my’ jarl/earldom and visit some of their burial mounds and drink a pint or two to them at ‘Up Helly Aa’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am also in the long process of researching my ancestry. Mine goes back to Rollo and Normandy but I do suppose if I used the Norse Sagas and stories, it would also go back to Orkney and to Scandinavia! I am currently waiting for results of a genealogy DNA test that might hopefully give me more answers. I am also planning a trip to Scotland and England later this spring and will definitely drink a pint or two or three to honor those ancestors!

      Like

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