Up Helly Aa takes place in Shetland 28 Jan-29 Jan (info: 01595 693434). Accommodation is hard to find in Lerwick during the festival, and it's impossible for casual visitors to gain entry to the "halls" on the night of the festivities.

Jorvik Viking Festival takes place in York 7-16 Feb (info: 01904 653000)


With horns on their heads and Thor in their hearts, Norsemen have always been associated with rape and pillage, but between battles, the warriors also knew how to enjoy themselves. In the coming weeks, festivals at York and Lerwick celebrate the original party animals.


An ancient heathen festival, Uphalliday literally meant "the end of the holidays" for Vikings, the time when the Christian holy period had ended and the pagans could whoop it up in their own, rumbustious way with feasting, drinking and bonfires. After languishing in the pages of history books for some time, the practice was revived in Shetland following the Napoleonic wars, when more modern seafarers returned from battle with wild habits and a taste for firearms, creating anarchy with blazing tar barrels until the tradition was banned in the 1870s.


Since then the festival has grown and developed to incorporate a torchlit procession, Longship conflagration and group of Viking-clad roisterers known as "guizers". Led by the Guizer Jarl (Earl), they carouse their way around the town until dawn, rewarded for their efforts by gifts of meat and drink along the way.


At 10am on the morning of Up Helly Aa, a 10ft-high Proclamation is placed at the Market Cross containing comic gossip gleaned over the course of the previous year. At the same time, the Galley, a graceful 30ft longship, is escorted through town by the guizers and hauled off to the sea, where it remains on display throughout the day.

At 7pm, the 900 or so costumed guizers gather at the Hillhead carrying 6ft torches, and half an hour later, the fiery procession sets off to torch the longship, accompanied by the Lerwick brass band. As the boat is dispatched to the great shipping Valhalla in the sky, the guizers roar out the traditional song "The Norseman's Home". For the rest of the night, squads of guizers visit halls around Lerwick to perform various satirical sketches and dances. The revelry goes on until dawn the next day.


If Shetland is a little distant for you to reach, you might want to book a place in the town hall for next year's Up Helly Aa, and console yourself with a visit to the week-long Viking antics in York. Hardly second best, as it boasts, among other things, a longship regatta which attracts ships from as far away as Oslo.