Origins of the Up Helly Aa Song

A huge procession of torch-carrying guizers is one of the most spectacular sights of the Shetland year.  For anyone who heads out in the dark of late January to watch the galley burn, as well as witnessing the visual theatrics of the event, the soundtrack is provided as well.  Through the long night, there is always lots of music - from Dua Lipa to Da Fustra - but no song is heard more than the Up Helly Aa song. 

Torch procession in 1970. Photo BM00269 from the Shetland Museum's Online Archive
Up Helly Aa Jarl Squad at the start of the procession at Lower Hillhead in 1963. Photo JM00322 from the Shetland Museum's Online Archive

The lyrics of the Up Helly Aa song were written by J.J. Haldane Burgess (1862-1027), a poet and novelist from Lerwick. Burgess had many achievements, but would he have expected to become Shetland's most popular songwriter? The charts may be difficult to independently verify, but do Shetlanders sing anything more often than the Up Helly Aa song?

J.J. Haldane Burgess (1862-1027).Photo NE02581 from the Shetland Museum's Online Archive

After being educated in Lerwick, where he rose to become pupil-teacher at the Anderson Educational Institute, Burgess entered a bursary competition run by Glasgow University in 1881. There were 607 candidates from across Scotland and Burgess finished above 606 of them, beating the second-placed student by 47 marks. A few years later, in 1886, he went to Edinburgh University, having already published several books, and a glittering academic or literary career seemed likely. However, during his time in the capital, Burgess's eyesight started to fail. He did pass his final exams in 1889, but he had to sit them orally. By the time he came back to Lerwick at the end of the decade, Burgess was completely blind.

Haldane (James John Haldane) Burgess, wearing scholar's gown and hat. Photo NE02238 from the Shetland Museum's Online Archive

In the 1890s, a group of young men from Lerwick shaped Up Helly Aa into what we see today. As Brydon Leslie shows in his excellent biography of Burgess, Borgar Jarl, the writer was a key influence in the construction of the festival. He was highly knowledgeable about Scandinavian history and literature, and was central to the introduction of Viking themes and motifs into the event. Reading Burgess's 1894 novel The Viking Path, we can perhaps see some of the roots of the modern festival beginning to emerge.

High Street and the North Harbour from Town Hall in the 1890's; County Buildings in foreground. Photo HU03885 from the Shetland Museum's Online Archive

In 1905 Burgess penned the lyrics to the Up Helly Aa song. It is poignant to think of him walking from his house in Queens Lane to stand beside the road as the guizers walked past. He would have felt the warmth of their torches on his face, and he would have been able to tell when the galley was ablaze. And through it all he would have heard his song. Haldane Burgess probably contributed more to Up Helly Aa than any other Shetlander, despite never being able to see the great spectacle he'd done so much to create.

Lerwick Up Helly Aa senior procession 1965. Photo HU03885 from the Shetland Museum's Online Archive
Galley burning after the Up Helly Aa procession. Photo SL08535 from the Shetland Museum's Online Archive

Note: The books and private papers of Haldane Burgess can be seen in the archives.

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