Shetland’s Up Helly Aa – Vikings & Wildlife
An exciting, informative and culturally diverse winter holiday celebrating and exploring Shetland, our wildlife and unique Viking heritage, culminating with an unforgettable night at Shetland’s world-famous Up Helly Aa fire festival.
- Experience Shetland’s world renowned Viking fire festival
- Five nights full board accommodation and four days in the field
- Enjoy the wildlife of the winter season with a particular focus on otters
- Evening entertainments through multiple tour leaders: wildlife, cultural heritage & music
- Maximum of eight guests
- Saturday 27th January to Thursday 1st February, 2024
The Shetland Islands’ unique blend of isolation, stark beauty and exotic wildlife is justly renowned, and especially in summer – but the rewards for a winter visit can be just as plentiful: evocative wildlife, friendly people and a compelling island way of life; rich cultural heritage, and the wild and beautiful winter landscape.
This insightful itinerary is led by Jon Dunn and Gary Bell. Jon has lived here in the Shetland for over 15 years, brought here by his love of wildlife and the opportunity to live in one of Europe’s wildest places. He has been a wildlife tour leader for the past decade, combining his love of sharing natural history with a growing reputation as a wildlife writer – and has even himself been involved in the festivities by been out as a member of an Up Helly Aa squad, so knows the festival inside out! Gary has lived in Shetland for over 20 years. Joining the Shetland Nature team in 2008 he has been at the forefront of our tour program for ten years. An experienced all round naturalist, his main passion is birds and is well known for his positions on various Scottish clubs and is the current chairman of The Shetland Bird Club.
Up Helly Aa – Shetland’s Viking Fire Festival
This is, of course, the main event. Taking place annually on the last Tuesday of January, the world-famous Up Helly Aa fire festival is a tradition that originated in the late 1800s and celebrates our Viking heritage. Since then, the festival evolved into the main event in Shetland’s cultural calendar and the biggest fire festival in Europe.
The day involves a series of marches and parades throughout Lerwick, Shetland’s town centre, with proud Shetlanders dressed head to toe in the finest of Viking regalia, and culminates in a flaming torch-lit procession and the burning of a Viking long-ship, a spectacle that attracts visitors and media attention from all over the world year after year.
Making the most of the long dark nights
It is indeed true that the days are short and the nights long at this time of year, so we have the perfect chance to delve further into the islands’ cultural heritage. Each evening you will be joined by a new member of our team for an entertaining insight into their respective areas of expertise.
In addition to your main tour leaders, (with you throughout) James Tait, a native Shetlander and passionate historian, story teller, crofter and tour guide, will take you on a journey from past to present.
Joining you for a night of traditional Shetland fiddle music Maurice Henderson, one of the islands’ best known fiddlers along with friends will share not only some of Shetland’s finest music and tunes but also the stories and folklore behind them.
To read about Shetland in Winter, have a look at our blog post Shetland in Winter.
The wildlife and the islands
Although a Shetland winter might not be for the faint-hearted – short days, long dark nights and the occasional wild storm notwithstanding – for the brave and more adventurous visitor Shetland is a truly inspirational place during the winter months. Not only is the landscape fantastically and often dramatically transformed by the weather and low winter light, but there is a whole wealth of wildlife to enjoy.
Otters are a key target species and winter is actually a very good season in which to watch them. With their diurnal feeding preference they make best use of the available daylight, and hence are especially active during the day. Another favourite during winter months is the Mountain Hare, in their snow white winter coats. Sharing this same moorland habitat, we will also look for Red Grouse, listening out for their evocative calls.
For birdwatchers, winter in Shetland is far from bleak and, although the density of species is much lower than in the summer months, a little effort can often reap great rewards. Sea ducks such as the very handsome Eider and Long-tailed Duck can be found in good numbers round much of the coast along with Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebes, and Red-breasted Merganser, especially in some of the more sheltered bays.
Scarce wintering gulls like Glaucous and Iceland Gulls can usually be found with relative ease, typically frequenting the harbours, fish farms and factories. A good mixture of winter wildfowl can also be enjoasdfyed, mainly on a few of some of the larger lochs. Round the coast good numbers of both Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper can be found along with Black Guillemot or ‘Tystie’ as they are locally known. Better yet, few years pass without wintering White-billed Divers or King Eiders, and very often both!
As our Up Helly Aa holiday itinerary spans six days we are able to take our time to fully explore the islands and the wildlife. Throughout the itinerary we need to remain relatively flexible so as to maximize our chances for the best wildlife encounters, and make the best adjustments to suit the prevailing weather.
Each day we will target a different set of species and locations and of course may well revisit the most popular. On Tuesday, the festival day we will be centred in or around Lerwick. In addition to various opportunities to see and photograph ‘the vikings’ and the galley there will also be time to explore the lovely town and its tourist attractions, as well as the fascinating urban wildlife in and around the harbour.
Booking – Holiday Dates
|Saturday 27th January to Thursday 1st February, 2024||Available|
Private Tour Options: This holiday can also be arranged exclusively for private booing for couples, families or small groups.
Additional holiday information:
- Read about the hotels we use – view our hotel providers.
- All meals, accommodation, guiding fee’s and excursions as well as ferry fares and transport are included in package cost.
- All boat trips are subject to weather availability.
- Not included in cost are items of a personal nature or hotel bar tabs nor is travel to and from Shetland included.
- No single supplement charged.
- On booking please advise of any special requirements medical or dietary.
- Throughout the holiday some of the activities will potentially involve walks of up to three or four miles (maximum in a day) and at times over uneven terrain. A reasonable level of fitness is advised however this is run at a leisurely pace. We can also provide holidays at an even more leisurely pace; please contact us for details.