Up Helly Aa!

last Tuesday in January

If you thought the Vikings were a thing of the past, hold on to your helmet.

On the last Tuesday in January, hundreds of Vikings invade the otherwise sleepy archipelago known as Shetland.

Shetland lies between Scotland and Norway, making it the perfect pillaging point in the heyday of the Vikings. Around 1000 AD, the Vikings began settling on the islands. A thousand years later their descendants are still proud of their heritage.

Up Helly Aa by day

At no time is that more apparent than the morning of Up Helly Aa, when hundreds of men dressed as Vikings (women are not allowed) take to the streets of Lerwick to recreate events from the great Norse sagas. Now, if you’ve ever read the great Norse sagas, you would think this would be compelling reason to stay away. On the contrary, Up Helly Aa is one of Shetland’s biggest tourist draws, as travelers come from all over the globe to witness the motley crews and be a part of the drunken revelry.

Up Helly Aa by night

It’s at night that the Shetlanders really heat things up. Up Helly Aa is one of Europe’s greatest and most famous fire festivals. The bonfires and torchlit processions replaced the tar-barreling activities which were banned.

Enormous galleys are built for the celebration. The highlight of the evening is the torching of the amazing galleys, which light up the Lerwick night.

© Anne Burgess
© Anne Burgess, Creative Commons license

in nights of Auld Lang Syne – Rabbie Burns, a Great Scot

January 25

Lang syne, in Eden’s happy scene

When strappin Adam’s days were green,

And Eve was like my bonie Jean

My dearest part,

A dancin’ sweet, young handsome quean,

O’ guileless heart

–from Address to the Devil

(unpublished version)

Robert Burns

Without ever picking up a sword or musket, Burns became a national hero of the Scots. His weapon was the pen. His ammunition the Scottish language. (Yes, they have their own language).

Even in Burns’ day the Scots language (a collection of dialects such as Doric, Buchan Claik, and Lallands) had lost favor with the upper crust. The 1707 Treaty of Union had united Scotland with England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, and the new establishment, for fear of sounding provincial, distanced themselves from the ‘auld’ dialects. English became the de facto language in education, and the language itself was blending with that of their neighbors to the south.

Robert (Rabbie) Burns entered the world on this day, 1759. His father was a gardener and an unsuccessful farmer, but he managed to secure an education for Robert, the first of his seven children at the village school.

“Forming a bachelors’ club and debating society at Tarbolton, young Robert became a Freemason, worked as a flax dresser in Irvine and enjoyed an active social and sexual life.”

The Canongate Burns By Andrew Noble

After his father’s death, Rabbie was forced to return to farming to support the family. It was during these years that he wrote some of his most famous poetry. (And conducted some of his more fruitful love affairs.) He also scoured the countryside collecting the traditional folk songs of his people, which would have otherwise been lost to history. His collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect earned him rapid fame, but not fortune.

Unlike the born-wealthy poets of his day, Burns earned very little from his writing. He continued to farm, and when the farm failed, he became an excise officer in Dumfries. His romantic, radical, idealist persona fostered by his works did not always match his life. Burns is often described as having a “weak heart,” but this did not dim his sexual escapades. He bore numerous prodigy by several women, including his long-suffering wife, Jean Armour, who bore their last child together on the day of his funeral.

from Bonie Jean: A Ballad

There was a lass, and she was fair,

At kirk or market to be seen;

When a’ our fairest maids were met,

The fairest maid was bonie Jean…

…As in the bosom of the stream,

The moon-beam dwells at dewy e’en;

So trembling, pure, was tender love

Within the breast of bonie Jean…

Burns passed at age 37 in 1796, leaving behind a romantic image of himself no man could match and a country beaming with nostalgic pride.

The first Burns’ Night was held five years after Burns’ death by a group of his close friends. They celebrated as Scots around the world will celebrate tonight:

Invite good friends, toast to Rabbie, roast said friends, drink heartily, savor the traditional haggis (everyone’s favorite) and recite the Bard’s immortal verse.

from A Bard’s Epitaph…

…Is there a man, whose judgment clear

Can others teach the course to steer,

Yet runs, himself, life’s mad career,

Wild as the wave,

Here pause–and, thro’ the starting tear,

Survey this grave

from Scots Wha Hae (unofficial Scottish anthem)

…’Wha, for Scotland’s king and law,

Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,

Freeman stand, or Freeman fa’,

Let him on wi’ me!

By Oppression’s woes and pains!

By your sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty’s in every blow!

Let us do or dee!

from Auld Lang Syne

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn

Frae morning sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar’d

Sin’ auld lang syne…


We two have waded in the stream

From dawn till dinner time;

But seas between us broad have roared

Since days of long ago…

On Marriage

That hackney’d judge of human life,

The Preacher and th King,

Observes: “The man that gets a wife

He gets a noble thing.”

But how capricious are mankind,

Now loathing, now desirous!

We married men, how oft we find

The best of things will tire us!

from A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter

(The First Instance that entitled him to the Venerable Appellation of Father)

Tho’ now they ca’ me fornicator,

An’ tease my name in kintry clatter,

The mair they talk, I’m kent the better,

E’en let them clash;

An auld wife’s tongue’s a feckless matter

To gie ane fash…

from A Red, Red Rose

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

So deep in luve am I;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry…

Full poem recited (with sexy accent!)

Links and Info:

burnspoety.com – a Poet for All Men

Index of Burns’ Work – read it

Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee – all-encompassing resource

How to Organize a Burns Supper – celebrate it

Bay Area Bites – Burns Night – San Francisco – eat it

New York City Haggis – NYC – eat it

Once Upon a Time in the West of Scotland – a different view

Burns Night – reflections on his poetry

A Red, Red Rose – hear it

Whisky Please – drink it

Burns Supper Report – An American Toast in Scotland

Address to a Haggis – youtube

St. Andrew’s Day – Scotland

November 30


November 30, St. Andrew’s Day, is the national day of Scotland.

St. Andrew is said to be the first disciple of Christ, though he’s got some competition from his brother Simon Peter.

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

— Matthew 4:18-19

The Book of John, however, proclaims Andrew and an unnamed disciple of John the Baptist as the first two, and Simon Peter as the third. When John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God”, Andrew and the unnamed disciple choose to follow Jesus. Only after spending the day with Jesus, does Andrew get his brother Simon Peter to tell him they’ve found the Messiah.

Andrew is also present with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple when Jesus tells them of false prophets and prophesies to be fulfilled:

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…

“…You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in synogogues…Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

— Mark 13

We don’t know Andrew’s last words. According to the Acts of St. Andrew, a third century text, he preached in Asia Minor, the Black Sea area, and Greece, and was crucified around 60 A.D. Tradition has it he was tied (not nailed) to an x-shaped cross, now known as St. Andrew’s Cross, or Saltire. Today the diagonal cross forms the banner of Scotland, of which St. Andrew is the patron saint. (Andrew the Apostle: Profile & Biography – About.com)

Martyrdom of St. Andrew
Martyrdom of St. Andrew

Saint Andrew is also the patron saint of Russia, the Ukraine, Greece, and Romania. But why Scotland? A country he never came a thousand miles from? The answer may lie with some of the Saint’s relics.

“…the monastery of Kilrymont (later St Andrews) in Fife claimed to have three fingers of the saint’s right hand, a part of one of his arms, one kneecap, and one of his teeth. It is possible that these were brought to Fife (which was at that time part of the kingdom of the Picts) from the neighbouring kingdom of Northumberland, where veneration of St Andrew was particularly strong. St Andrews became a popular pilgrimage destination after miracles were attributed to the saint.”

Saint Andrew seals Scotland’s Independence

St. Andrew’s Day didn’t become an official Bank Holiday in Scotland until 2006, a move that met with some controversy.

“There will always be someone to argue against something as unambiguously positive and celebratory as Saint Andrew’s Day. They’ll say it’s all a load of patriotic nonsense; they’ll say that Saint Andrew never set foot in Scotland, they’ll question why we have to share a saint with the Ukraine, Russia, Greece and so on. Maybe they’ll whinge that it’s too Christian, too partial, or not multicultural enough, and ask why it has to be that particular saint in the first place. But it all misses the point. Let’s face it, nobody thinks Saint Patrick’s Day is really about Saint Patrick; everybody knows it’s all about Ireland. And so it should be with Saint Andrew’s Day. It’s not really about celebrating Saint Andrew, it’s about celebrating Scotland.”

Azeem Ibrahim, Is Saint Andrew’s Day Worth Celebrating?

Historically, the night before St. Andrew’s Day served as a divination night for unmarried girls, who could discern information about their future mate through age-old rituals:

“Throw a shoe at a door. If the toe of the shoe pointed in the direction of the exit, then she would marry and leave her parents’ house within a year…

“Peel a whole apple without breaking the peel and throw the peel over the shoulder. If the peel formed a letter of the alphabet, then this suggested the name of her future groom.”

— http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/months/andrew.html

St. Andrew’s Eve Divination and Rituals