The ancient rituals of the Beltane festival in Scotland

This great date of the Celtic calendar hailed the return of the summer, the fertility of the land and the protection of all living things from troubling forces.

Beltane has been marked with a stunning fire festival on Calton  Hill in Edinburgh for the past 30 years with the ancient rituals of May 1  observed in Scotland for centuries. PIC: Ian Georgeson/TSPL.
Beltane has been marked with a stunning fire festival on Calton Hill in Edinburgh for the past 30 years with the ancient rituals of May 1 observed in Scotland for centuries. PIC: Ian Georgeson/TSPL.

Fire was central to the Beltane festivals of May 1, when darkness was shed and revellers embraced the light of the new season.

The Beltane fire was considered a great source of purification and healing with feasts and dancing unfolding in its glow. Cattle were blessed by the sacred fire to ward off disease.

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    Author Anne Ross, in Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, describes how Beltane was also a time of human sacrifice in Pagan times.

    She said: “Human sacrifice and offerings were made, and the ritual would be followed by rejoicing and festivities of all kinds.

    “In recent centuries the sacrifices were replaced by token offerings.”

    May 1 typically signalled the start of summer grazing, with rituals surrounding the movement of the beasts to pasture with great revelry surrounding the ‘happiest time of the year’, Ross wrote.

    Women and children accompanied the animals to pasture to take care of dairying. Men and boys would sometimes visit, with courting a great joy of the season.

    At the time of the Druids, cattle was driven between two fires made of sacred wood by the powerful Pagan priests in a bid to protect them from harm and disease in the year ahead.

    Incantations were recited as the animals were moved to summon protection from a mixture of Celtic characters and, latterly, Christian saints.

    According to Ross, Beltane was sacred to the god Belinus, whose ‘cult orbit’ stretched from the Italic Peninsula, across Europe and into the British Isles

    The leader of the Catuvellauni tribe of Celts in southern Britain, whose reign lasted some 40 years and ended at 43D, took the name of Cunobelinus, or Hound of Belinus.

    His festival was held on May 1, with date fulsomely celebrated in the Highlands right into the 20th Century, Ross wrote.

    In Edinburgh, Beltane is still marked with a huge festival on Calton Hill on April 30, with Beltane officially beginning at moonrise on May Day Eve.

    It was on this day that hearth fires were traditionally extinguished with the materials gathered the next morning for the sacred blaze.

    Sometimes, sticks placed in stables and byres on the Thursday before Easter were carried to the hill of May 1 where the rites were celebrated.

    James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, his seminal study of ritual and religion, describes the tradition of Beltane fire making on Skye, Mull and Tiree.

    A well seasoned plank of oak was procured with a second piece placed through a hole bored through the middle.

    The wood was rubbed together with “violent friction” with a type of “very combustible” agaric drawn from old birch trees applied.

    Frazer wrote: “The fire had the appearance of being immediately derived from heaven, and manifold were the virtues ascribed to it.

    “They esteemed it as a preservative against witchcraft, and a sovereign remedy against malignant diseases, both in the human species and in cattle, and by it the strongest poisons were supposed to have their nature changed.”

    If any person involved in the making of the fire was guilty of murder, theft or rape, it was said the fire would not kindle or it would be stripped of its usual power.

    The Beltane cake was another key ritual of the celebration and some accounts detail how it was presented at the end of the feast by the master of the gathering.

    The large cake was baked with eggs and scalloped round the edge.

    Known as am bonnach brea-tine, modern recipes of the cake include spices such as cinnamon and cardamom.

    The cake was divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the company. Some accounts detail how the pieces were put in a bonnet with blindfolded men then picking out their piece.

    One of the pieces was daubed with charcoal – the cailleach beal-tine- and the unlucky holder was doomed to be sacrificed to Beliunus.

    Ross notes how the sacrifice would have taken place in Pagan times although latterly the holder of the blackened cake had to jump over the fire six times to avoid the burning, with this leaping of flames documented in the Glen Lyon area of Perthshire.

    Frazer offers another version of the fate of those holding the blackened Beltane cake.

    He said: “Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued.

    “And in some places they laid him flat on the ground, making as if they would quarter him.

    “Afterwards, he was pelted with egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year.”

    Beltane became a festival carried out with the “utmost secrecy” as the church began to warn against superstitious practice, according to Ross.

    “But in spite of the very considerable power of the Church , the power of time-honoured tradition proved stronger, and these practices continued into the twentieth century, publicly, or covertly,” she added.