FOR some people, the Beltane Fire Festival is nothing more than a bunch of hippies getting drunk, getting naked and lighting hazardous fires on a hilltop.
But there's a lot more to Edinburgh's festival of pagans and wiccans than that. This month Beltane celebrates its 20th anniversary, with a fortnight of activities, workshops and seminars leading up to the 30 April ceremony. Among the events is a photo exhibition at the Bongo Club and a geological tour of Arthur's Seat. The day itself will see the first ever Beltane green audit, to assess the event's impact on the environment.
Pete Renwick, now in his third year of producing the event, is excited about this development. "I've been involved with Beltane since I came over to Edinburgh ten years ago and performed in it, so I've loved watching it grow. The environment initiative is great because we'll be able to recycle a lot of the waste left on Calton Hill, and it's fitting that a fire festival should be assessing its environmental impact. We're marking the anniversary with a buzz of activity and have a special performance from some of the people who were involved from the outset, such as Lyndsey John and Angus Farquhar, who'll be doing a performance at the fire arch."
The Beltane Fire Festival celebrates the heritage of Gaelic history, and marks the blossoming of spring and fertility. The name Beltane is thought to have derived from a Celtic word meaning "bright fire"; the fire represents the sun burning away the winter darkness, and the community pass through it to be purified and circle it for good luck.
Over the past two decades Beltane has hosted 150,000 spectators and 5,000 performers, with ticket sales reaching 12,000 last year. On the night itself the performers lead a torchlit procession around Calton Hill, moving through the fire gate and then to points representing the four elements. The story is of the Royal Court, consisting of the May Queen (goddess of spring), her White Women protectors and Blue Men orderlies. The Royals are pitted against Red Men, who bring chaotic disorder and try to disrupt the procession with libidinous behaviour. It ends spiritedly with the rebirth of the Green Man, representing the first summer growth.
"I do the toast every year, but there's going to be a small additional section this year bringing in original performers, hopefully including our first May Queen, Liz Raken," says Angus Farquhar, a founder of the festival, and now director of NVA, well known for its site-specifc events and outdoor festivals. "It's a good opportunity for people to commemorate the beginning when there were only a handful of blue and red men."
Farqhuar says he is "immensely proud" of his involvement with the festival. "It's become a full community and it's part of so many people's lives, yet it hasn't lost its heart with getting bigger; the ritual focus has remained central. Beltane is the sense of being involved in something bigger within a very individualised time, to be involved in a larger soul and celebrate something you believe in. Authentic things in a culture are so important and that's Beltane. There is a lot of packaged, bland and cynical work that parades itself as entertainment like television and manufactured bands. Beltane is raw, unique and original."
But the controversy surrounding the event cannot be disregarded easily. Some local residents have raised concerns in the past about noise, the risk of a fire outbreak and, as the event's popularity grows, the increased risk of injury when so many people are crammed on to one small hill. The festival was cancelled in 2003 after a bitter dispute with Edinburgh City Council over safety concerns, with organisers angrily accusing the council of "deliberate sabotage". There was another confrontation the following year when the council imposed an alcohol ban at the event - a decision overturned at the 11th hour after the organisers argued it would breach their human rights.
"It does become a bit crowded up there," acknowledges Renwick. "We have around 380 performers this year and it will be tight for them to move through the crowds, but many argue that is part of the experience. No matter how much the demand grows we'll never move from Calton Hill. It's integral to the festival and it's our home. Obviously it's fantastic that the support has been growing every year and it shows the public enjoy the event and want to keep it happening."
Each festival costs around 40,000 to stage, with the costs sometimes threatening to cripple the voluntary organisation that runs it. Luckily, city leaders have agreed to cut the cost of a public entertainment licence for the festival by two-thirds, meaning the organisers pay a 1,000 fee to stage the event as opposed to the original fee of 3,200. The Beltane organisers remain adamant that ticket prices should be affordable to everyone and event fees should not be grouped together, but assessed on an individual basis. "Obviously there's monetary concerns for a non-profit organisation," says Renwick, "but the fee reduction showed a new level of support for the event, which was really appreciated."
Farqhuar sees the struggles over the years as a strengthening tool. "It's tremendous and shows the sheer commitment by those involved to raise the money autonomously," he says. "It's exemplary of never taking a knock-back and walking away and there's a constant good, firm fighting power. The past disagreements with the council have just been blips and there are good people there who are willingly helpful."
The Beltane Fire Festival is certainly no ordinary night out. Twenty years on, it remains one of the most exuberant events on the capital city's calendar. At time of writing, around 300 tickets have already been sold. Renwick urges people to book in advance to avoid disappointment.
• For further information on the Beltane Fire Festival's 20th anniversary programme, visit the web at www.beltane.org. For tickets, tel: 0131-473 2000.