Vanessa James gets all fired up celebrating the Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Scotland's Shetland Islands.

My eyes streamed and stung from the greasy smoke of a thousand paraffin-soaked torches. Ice-cold rain coursed down my neck as the wind flung tiny pieces of burning sacking in my face.

A spark seared a hole in my chin while the rest of my face froze. The crowd around me pressed back into the stone wall encircling the park behind us.

Through the dark, armed Vikings were striding towards us, blazing torches in one hand, axes in the other, chanting and shouting and followed by squad after squad of bizarrely dressed Shetland Islanders. In the crowd, dogs pulled at their leashes and children ducked away from the fire and the smoke and the yelling, as the Vikings strode through.

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Vikings march through the streets for the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival in the Shetlands. Photo / Getty Images
Vikings march through the streets for the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival in the Shetlands. Photo / Getty Images

The cavalcade circled the crowd and marched into the field, then the stinging and the burning was coming from both sides: we were hemmed in by a thousand marching madmen. Around the field they went and around again, singing and chanting and advancing ever closer to where a Viking galley, its mighty dragon face upturned, loomed shining in the night. Closer and closer, then suddenly their torches were flying in the air, wave after wave of fire thrown into the galley. Massive flames erupted higher and higher, curtains of colour and heat billowing in the dark, ripping through the galley until the dragon's neck burnt through and its head toppled into the bonfire.

Cheering and screaming, the madmen waited until rain sputtered the fire, turned away and marched silently out of the field. The crowd separated out into the night.

Our group of four walked up the hill to Bell's Brae Primary School, where we checked our coats in the gym and settled down for a drink before the night really got under way.

We had just experienced the procession of Up Helly Aa, a Viking fire festival which started in the 1800s and endures today as the biggest event on the Shetland calendar.

The blazing torches symbolise Nordic sacrificial fires and the galley represents the longships that bore the funeral pyres of slain warriors to Valhalla. To take part in the procession you have to be 16 or older, male, and have lived in the Shetlands for at least five years. Other fire festivals have sprung up in the Shetlands — some of which allow women to participate — but this Lerwick festival is by far the biggest. The participation of more than a thousand people is impressive for islands with a total population of approximately 22,000.

As visitors to the Shetlands, we went on a waiting list to be allocated tickets to one of the halls. Twelve halls around the town host the squads after the procession, and those locals not in the parade are spread around the halls, hosting or dancing. The squads — 48 this year — go from hall to hall performing for the crowds through the night. Having read about the festival beforehand, I imagined all the squads would be dressed in different Viking regalia. Instead my brain imploded as 30 inflatable dinosaurs danced around me, their tiny little T rex arms flailing in time to YMCA. In between the squads the band played on, the crowd lined up for Scottish country dancing, and ladies in the kitchen poured tea from huge aluminum pots and served plate after plate of egg sandwiches and scones with jam and cream.

Squads are teams of friends, relatives and workmates who spend hours designing costumes and choreographing skits, practising in garages for months for their big moment, performing as dinosaurs or cows or salsa dancers or human-sized fluffy yellow chickens.

Because women don't participate, there are plenty of cross-dressers. Skits often represent local or international events — Donald Trump marched by me with a blazing torch — and can include impressive dancing, inspirational acting or just be bizarre and confusing (like the sharks circling a group of swimmers so they could pop their balloons).

Vikings march through the streets for the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival in the Shetlands. Photo / Getty Images
Vikings march through the streets for the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival in the Shetlands. Photo / Getty Images

There's a junior squad who, resplendent in ugg boots and white furs, burned their own small Viking galley.

Up Helly Aa is led by a different squad — the "Jarl Squad" — every year. The Guizer Jarl, or chief of the squad, chooses a historical Viking figure to portray. Last year's Guizer, Lyall Gair, chose Sweyn "Forkbeard" Haraldson, a bloodthirsty warrior and king of Norway and Denmark who became King of England by conducting relentless bloody massacres over a 20-year period, until the English earls were forced to pronounce him king, whereupon he promptly fell off a horse and died.

The Jarl Squad dresses in full Viking kit, complete with real shields, axes and helmets that would serve them well in battle.

On the morning of Up Helly Aa, the Jarl squad issues a proclamation in Lerwick's Market Square. The Guizer leads his squad though the town to the square where the proclamation is nailed to a post, and they pause and sing the Up Helly Aa song and another song — this year it was the Proclaimers' I'm On My Way. The squad carries on to the waterfront where they pose for photos with the galley then spend the day visiting schools and clubs before the procession. The Jarl Squad arrived at Bell's Brae at 3am, fresh as if they'd just started, and sang Elvis's Burning Love: 30 Vikings in full war kit and perfect harmony.

One of our hosts told me they had inquired about insuring the event but were quoted millions because of the lack of concessions to health and safety.

Over the years some changes have been made; torches used to be thrown into the galley all at once to create a spectacular mushroom effect, but too many people at the front were getting burnt by wayward torches, so they started to throw them in waves. They've also stopped rolling lit tar barrels down the steep laneways into the town. They still expect at least 15 people will be admitted to A&E with burns. We were relieved to get away with our eyebrows. Well, most of them.

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies from Auckland to Edinburgh, with a stopover in Dubai. Economy return fares are available from $1789. From there, a ferry service and regional airlines go to the Shetlands.

DETAILS
The next Up Helly Aa festival takes place on January 29.