Up Helly Aa in Shetland — Possibly My Best Adventure Yet!

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I just got back from a five-day trip that I will never forget — ever.  I traveled with Haggis Adventures to the remote Shetland Islands, northeast of Scotland, to experience Up Helly Aa, the Viking Fire Festival held in Shetland every January.

This may have been my best trip…EVER.

Seriously.  I am still reeling from how good a time I had.


How was this trip the best trip I’ve ever had?

Was it about how the trip started — a race up a snowy mountain for a bottle of whisky at the robust hour of 10:00 AM?

(Despite that, this wasn’t a drinking trip by any means.  It was fine whisky we raced for, not crappy beer!)

Was it about our sweet, hilarious, and passionate Haggis Adventures guides Tony and Dougie, who love nothing more than showing off Scotland to travelers like us?

Without them, our trip wouldn’t have been a fraction of as awesome as it was.  I love those guys.

Could it have been about how even the overnight boat ride was a Shetland adventure?  They played the folk music and even let us play the drums for a bit!  We danced it up.

Or was it about Shetland itself?  Once we arrived, we discovered a raw, cold, untouched and breathtakingly beautiful land.

Maybe it was about the Vikings!  Posing with Vikings, dancing with Vikings, drinking with Vikings, singing with Vikings.  We did all of the above!

And there were Baby Vikings!  Speaking on behalf of the ladies, we just wanted to take them home with us.

But above all, it was about Up Helly Aa.  It was about the greatest festival I’ve ever experienced — yes, even better than Songkran — and it was amazing watching the sky light up with fire as everyone cheered!

Pyromaniacs, this is the festival for you!

Up Helly Aa is way more than just fire.  Next up was the most exclusive event — the Town Hall party.

And then this trip became all about the all-night Shetland/Scottish folk dancing…

It was about the wacky performances from 50 different squads, from 9 PM-8 AM…

And most memorably, it was about the lovely, funny, wonderful people with whom you vow to stay at the party until the final squad is done.

And when the festivities were all over and we headed back to Scotland…maybe it was about road tripping from Aberdeen to Edinburgh and making occasional stops for attractions like this:

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CASTLE IN SCOTLAND.  Just a casual stop.  That’s one thing that I loved about Haggis Adventures and our lovely guides — they knew just the kinds of stops that would thrill us.


On paper, it sounds like just the kind of trip I’d avoid — freezing cold, windy, far northern Shetland, in January, of all months!  But between the sheer amount of fun we had, the weirdness of Shetland and Up Helly Aa, and the stunning beauty of the landscapes surrounding us, I’m happy to say that I HAD THE TIME OF MY LIFE.

Here are the posts about the trip:

Many thanks to Haggis Adventures for a truly fantastic time on the Up Helly Aa trip.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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41 thoughts on “Up Helly Aa in Shetland — Possibly My Best Adventure Yet!”

  1. Awesome! Great post & pictures! 🙂 So wanted to see the Up Helly Aa as well, but was much to early when I went there in Summer 😀 Love Lerwick and the Shetlands. And even though it’s not Shetland: Dunnattor Castle is so beautiful, great light in the picture!

  2. As an Alaskan, i would be hard pressed to leave 65 degrees north and go to Scotland in January…as remarkable as Scotland is….However this adventure looks almost as fun as BURNINGMAN
    held over labor day in the Black Rock desert of Nevada. Fire, dance and everything else. So, guess the
    Up Helly Aa
    needs to be added to my bucket list. Thanks Kate

  3. How about the guides in those kilts? =) You’re right, they’re half the reason for ‘WILD and SEXY’ (Scotland’s the other half =) ). I only have love, love, love for Haggis Adventures. Glad you had a blast!

  4. That looks like so much FUN!!! When I went to Scotland I only had enough time to spend a few days in Edinburg and take a day trip into the highlands. It was amazing–the dark and broody yet equally beautiful and magical city, which interestingly is exactly how I describe the highlands, was one of the coolest places I had seen.

    Now I HAVE to go back for this Helly Aa fire festival!

    Great post, pics and what cool adventure!

  5. Kate, that last photo is unbelievable! Was that with the new HD photography app? I love it! I’m also super jealous of this adventure…. you know how I love the Scots!

  6. Those Smurfs must be terrifying if you’ve had a bit to drink…

    Also, is it wrong that I find the whole Viking thing oddly arousing? Just me?

    Oh, and that castle is GORGEOUS! Did you find out the name of it?!

  7. Looks like you’ve had a fabulous time. I am la shetland and was at the town hall that night and can confirm you looked like you were having a brilliant time. Glad you enjoyed your trip to Shetland and can I just tthank you for the fantastic advertising you have done on Shetland’s behalf. So proud to be a shetlander when I read this! Thanks again

      1. I’ll second that! I’m from Shetland and Up Helly Aa is THE best time of the year. So proud to be from such a beautiful place when we get feedback like this 🙂

  8. glad you enjoyed your trip,we were lucky this year with the weather …makes for a better day (and night) hope you come and see us again.

  9. I fell in love with Scotland and the Shetland Islands in July. We met the most fabulous people and learned about Up Helly Ah from our fabulous Hosts Karen & Keith Anderson of the Aald Harbour Bed and Breakfast in Lerwick. I wish we could have experienced it. Now I want to even more!

  10. Hah, I’ve been reading a lot of your blog recently and I decided to see if you’ve been to my home “town” (island), Orkney. It’s funny after looking at all the other places you’ve been, seeing a picture on board the Northlink boat! Surprisingly I’ve never been to Shetland, but I’ve always wanted to go for this! It would be interesting to compare it to Orkney, too. 🙂

  11. Glad you are so impressed with where we stay but please don’t call it the ‘Shetlands’ – it’s Shetland Isles to us 🙂


  13. Wow! Looks like such an amazing trip Kate! I’ve just come back from a 3 day Isle Of Skye tour with Haggis and just loved every minute. It was my first time in Scotland too so everything amazed me >< The castles are so good right?! I need to get my ass up to the festivals now like you and then I really will be head over heels for Scotland.

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