28 January 2020 – Up Helly Aa

As today is the last Tuesday of January, it’s the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick. And it’s days like these I wish Sussex was further north. This festival sounds brilliant. There are Vikings in full costume, and a flaming torch procession, and setting fire to a galley, and all-night ceilidhs, and comedy skits, and intergenerational participation, and good natured drinking, just my kind of thing. So just to torture myself a bit more, I read the chapter about the Up Helly Aa in Gary Sutherland’s very funny memoir, Great Balls of Fire, A Year of Scottish Festivals, which made me want to go even more.

But I had other things to do today and couldn’t hop a flight to Shetland. In fact I had lots of other things to do today, so today’s Everyday Lore is a quickie. Not that kind of quickie. In keeping with the fire theme, and to honour the galley’s dragon prow I tried out the magic charm ‘Dragon’s Breath’.

The instructions were simple: rub your hands together vigorously for two minutes until really hot, then click your fingers on both hands, holding them so they almost touch. This should create a spark which if blown on should turn into a blue flame. The more you focus, the bigger the flame. 

I’m not going to lie, I am quite cynical about these things. However this didn’t stop me from having an existential shiver wondering if I was being disrespectful by performing this charm and therefore inadvertently bringing down some bad juju on myself. But I set my timer and did it anyway. 

Firstly, it was surprisingly painful rubbing my hands together for two minutes, my upper arms were in agony after about 20 seconds. I finally found a comfortable position resting one hand on a thigh and rubbing the other on top of it, then swapping hands every 10 seconds or so. Now admittedly, my circulation sucks, but I wasn’t prepared for my hands to burn and then go lukewarm and then burn again, but that happened several times during the two minutes. Before I started, I’d turned off my desk lamp so I could see any sparks more clearly, but despite repeated clicks, nothing happened. Except at some point I started clicking in time to the background music like I was an extra in West Side Story. The clicking also made the tips of my fingers tingle, I can still feel this as I type. So a folklore fail, except it did warm me up and remind me that I should probably snatch, clean and jerk more. 

However, this is not to say I’ve never set my fingers alight. But, that’s another story for another time…


Resources

Header image taken from the Meet The Guizer Jarl at Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2020 Youtube Video embedded above, (c) Promote Shetland

Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Sutherland, G. (2009) Great Balls of Fire, A Year of Scottish Festivals, Edinburgh, Berlinn Limited

https://www.uphellyaa.org/up-helly-aa-2020/

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