The magic and lore of Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival

Beltane Fire Festival. Picture: Jasper Schwartz

Beltane Fire Festival. Picture: Jasper Schwartz

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THOUGH the Beltane Fire Festival is a celebration of centuries-old traditions, it’s less of a history lesson than a feast for the senses. Holly Lennon discovers why

“I remember the drums, the crackling flames, the feeling that I had stumbled into something truly unique, something I had to take part in.”

Beltane Fire Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Beltane Fire Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Tanya Simpson’s first time at Beltane, in 2005, was a feast for the senses. Up to 12,000 revellers have experienced that same sense of energy annually since 1988, a celebration drawing from centuries-old folk traditions.

A sense of community and a connection to the environment has always been key to the festival, even in its earliest days.

Beltane, meaning “bright fire,” was celebrated in various forms as a marker of the beginning of summer. For the pastoral Celtic people across Europe, the changing of seasons was a matter of life and death and held great significance in the life of the community.

Beltane fires represented the growing power of the sun and provided an opportunity for humans and animals alike to cleanse after spending the dark months indoors.

Beltane Fire Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Beltane Fire Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Cattle would be driven round the freshly-lit fires and Scots would dance and leap over the flames. As the years progressed, however, this tradition was slowly abandoned. The last recorded Beltane fire was in 1820 and by the twentieth century, Beltane celebrations had largely come to an end.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Edinburgh’s Beltane fires were re-lit. The first performance drew on existing folk traditions surrounding Beltane, giving celebration a modern angle.

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Simpson, who now PRs for Beltane Fire Society, explains: “The Beltane Fire Festival as we know it today began in 1988, spearheaded by Angus Farquhar of Test Dept and other innovative performers.

“I experienced Beltane as an audience member in 2005, shortly after moving to Scotland. I had no idea what to expect and was instantly enveloped by a welcoming atmosphere of peaceful celebration. I remember seeing the May Queen and the Whites for the first time, a stunning contradiction of delicate floral costumes wrapped around strong, imperious figures. In contrast, encountering the Reds was like being swept along by a tornado of chaos, an avalanche of wild abandon.”

The first modern festival took place on Calton Hill to an audience of around 100 people. With the introduction of the Beltane Fire Society, the event went on to grow to several hundred performers and 3,000 audience members.

In the years that have followed, the festival has grown in size and popularity while maintaining its key elements, including the procession of the May Queen, the death and rebirth of the Green Man and the lighting of the bonfire.

“As a piece of self-determining investigative theatre, the details change every year,” Simpson says. “There is always a May Queen and a Green Man. There are always Whites, Reds, Drummers and Torchbearers. There is always a procession around Calton Hill and the elements are always represented in some way.

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“But within the theme of death and rebirth, there is so much scope for reinterpretation and exploration. No two Beltanes are the same and new characters appear on the Hill every year, creating a new lens through which to view the age-old story of change and connection.”

Throughout the summer there will be a number of festivals taking place across Scotland, revolving around everything from music to whisky. Beltane is Simpson adds: “Beltane is immersive. You can stand back and watch but you can also stand close and experience. It taps into something we all feel - the innate desire to come together as a community, to connect with the natural world even in the middle of the city, to let go of expectations and just be.”

• Beltane Fire Festival takes place on April 30. For tickets and festival information, visit https://beltane.org/

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