All Fired Up: The people behind the Beltane Festival

The May Queen at a previous Beltane. Picture: Julie Howden
The May Queen at a previous Beltane. Picture: Julie Howden
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On Monday, thousands will throng Calton Hill in Edinburgh for the 25th Beltane Fire Festival, a rite to welcome the summer, with the May Queen and Green Man at the heart of a cast of hundreds. Here, Chitra Ramaswamy meets some of the key players as they prepare for today’s special family day

One ancient hill, one May Queen, one Green Man, and hundreds of bodies facing the elements in nothing more than thongs and a lick of paint. Three hundred performers and 1,200 revellers, dreadlocks and drums, acrobatics and alcohol. And fire. Enough fire to light up the sky above Calton Hill for one wild night; the last night of spring and the first sunrise of summer.

2012`s May Queen Erin Chadwick and Green Man Tom Hutchinson. Picture: Ian Rutherford

2012`s May Queen Erin Chadwick and Green Man Tom Hutchinson. Picture: Ian Rutherford

It can only be Beltane. This year Edinburgh’s great pagan fire festival (or crazy, health and safety defying knees-up, depending on how you view it) celebrates its 25th anniversary. It’s come a long way since 1988, when on a rainy April night, five performers and a couple of hundred curious locals wandered around a hill in the middle of the city until dawn arrived to greet them. We spoke to five of the people behind Beltane…

Angus Farquhar, Beltane founder

Twenty-five years is quite something, but on the other hand Beltane is an extremely old tradition.

Still, 25 years is a generational marker and also exactly half my life. Back in 1988, I sat down with the late Hamish Henderson and decided to put on a fire festival in Edinburgh. I had seen them in Spain and Italy, mostly Catholic but often quite pagan when you got to the smaller villages. I wanted to bring the radical aspects of folk culture to Scotland. I had also been going to the Burning of the Clavie in Burghead on the Moray Firth, a really old fire festival. I was becoming obsessed.

Matthew Richardson, Chair of the Beltane Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Matthew Richardson, Chair of the Beltane Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The first year we went until dawn, ran through the fire, and it was wild. It was quite anarchic, but by hook or by crook it’s survived. I used to drum myself into a kind of madness and then you’d look up in the morning at the watery sun rising and feel a sort of intensification of life. I was more pagan then in my outlook but I still feel this incredible energy on the night and the sense performers are doing something greater than themselves. Beltane started out as an extension of socialism – something liberating for ordinary people in the middle of a city.

The first May Queen was Liz Ranken, a remarkable ex-dancer with DV8 who did nine years. There have only been five May Queens in 25 years. Also key in the early festivals was Lindsay John, a butoh performer in Japan who was born in St Lucia. He had these twin qualities – Trinidadian carnival and a strong use of the exposed body from butoh that he brought to Beltane. Both spirits have remained.

There are descriptions of fire festivals in Edinburgh going back to the 16th century. It was the lower orders, the servants, who would go up Arthur’s Seat. There was whisky, dancing and seeing things through to dawn. It was frowned on by the authorities as licentious behaviour.

I’m lucky to be one of the people who has been every year since the start. When you see Beltane in full flow, when the Reds come tearing down the hill to make their attack on the White Women, the scale of it takes your breath away. Marriages, births and handfastings have all come out of Beltane. It’s become this incredible social reality and an alternative way of life in Edinburgh.

Erin Chadwick, May Queen

My costume is a surprise. It’s all handmade and I’ve been working on it since January. I have a lot of people who help me and this year it’s symbolic of fullness – alive and green and vibrant. That’s all I’m going to tell you.

This is my sixth year doing Beltane and my third as May Queen. I got a knock on the door one day and there was the May Queen and a Blue Man on my doorstep. I felt like running away. It was a huge deal when they asked me and it took a long time to accept that this is who I am.

The May Queen represents everything to me. She is the symbol of life, Mother Earth, goddess, maiden, fertility, and potential. Even now that I am the May Queen I talk about her as something removed from me. I just have to trust that the moment I walk on the hill, I am her. I wouldn’t say it’s an out-of-body experience but I won’t remember a large proportion of the night.

One of the aspects I cherish is the handfasting, when we join couples who have chosen to make this loving commitment at Beltane. It’s such an honour for me to be able to do that. They carry that moment with them long after the fire is extinguished and the costumes have been packed up. The things that stay with you are the looks on people’s face, a punter’s smile, the flicker of a flame, even torrential rain. Tiny little moments that burn into your memory. There are challenging moments too, but we deal with them. When the rain is on and you’re trying to light the fires using traditional methods… well, out comes the ritual Zippo.

Hutch, Green Man

I arrived in Edinburgh in 2004 and as soon as I went to Beltane I knew I was meant to be a part of it. I’ve always been a very spiritual person and for me Beltane isn’t a performance, it’s a ritual. It’s about our connection to the land and its continuous cycles.

In 2007 I took part for the first time. This is my first year as the Green Man, who represents life and movement. When he is in his Horned God form, which I did last year, he is more bestial. As Green Man he is more nourishing. There is also an aspect of the fool to him – of social change, and truthtelling. Most people would be training ridiculously to play this character. The dance and rebirthing part of his cycle are very physical. But I’ve always been fit as a fiddle and used to be a circus performer.

I have three costumes. The Horned God isn’t going to be a giant shrub this year, like he has been in the past. Instead my friend has made a giant copper stag’s head. Then I have a hooded, jacket-style outfit with big cuffs and baggy trousers for the Fool aspect. Finally, the Green Man, traditionally, is naked and painted green.

In 2010 I was a Red Man and lots of stuff happens because, well, you’re the embodiment of chaos and sexual energy. It’s quite mental and a fantastic liberation. You’re almost completely naked with a bunch of really drunk people around you. What’s liberating is that we – naked and painted red – own that space, not them. But it’s not to say bad stuff doesn’t happen. When people come with the wrong attitude, just to get drunk and see naked women, they ruin the spirit of Beltane.

Matthew Richardson, society chairman

I’ve been involved for 14 years. I saw my first Beltane in 1997 when I came to Edinburgh. I just completely fell in love. The vibrancy, expression and community spirit were unlike anything else I had seen. Beltane was a lot less controlled then. Everyone brought their own fire toys and all sorts of things happened.

The preparations used to take six weeks, now it starts in January. It used to cost around £10,000 and now we’re upwards of £60,000. We used to have an up and down relationship with the city council but in the past few years we’ve formed good bonds and are now considered a festival alongside the other ones in Edinburgh.

It was because of rising costs that we had to introduce ticketing in 2004. As a voluntary organisation we couldn’t keep doing it solely on fundraising and donations. Beltane is a charity and it really does happen because of the passion people have for it.

The very first Beltanes had a few hundred people and the interaction was a lot more intimate, almost one-to-one. Now the crowds are huge and for a while it got a bit out of hand. Now, we’re finding our feet again and are thinking about how we can get the audience to participate more. Beltane did have a reputation for a while for being a crazy party and a history of people drinking and taking drugs to excess. We’re past that but we still have its legacy hanging over us. The wildness, enthusiasm and energy are part of Beltane and we want people to cast off their inhibitions – but we try to discourage people from losing sight of the core values of the festival.

Tanya Simpson

This year I’m running a new group called Contact Point, a space where people can find information about the history of Beltane and the rituals, the Fire Society, and what’s going on and when on the night. We’ll be doing live blogging and updating on Twitter and loading pictures so people all over the world can be involved.

I don’t think people realise how much time and work goes into Beltane. It’s such a labour of love. Hopefully this new element means people will enjoy the celebration on a deeper level. We want people to feel like they’re part of a celebration rather than just wandering around the hill watching stuff happen. It’s the sense of community that has kept Beltane going for so long.

We’re not going to be in character but we’ve taken our inspiration from the Wood Woman, a sort of spirit guide in a forest of confusion. We’re going to be dressed in green and copper with horns and ivy. I started in Beltane last year but I feel like I’ve been here longer than I have. Things become legendary quite quickly. I had heard, for example, many stories about this amazing exploding penis fire sculpture from years ago. I got to see it recently and you know what? It was pretty amazing.

Beltane Family Day is today, 10am-3pm, Calton Hill, free. Beltane Fire Festival is on Monday, April 30, Calton Hill, gates 8pm, ceremony begins 9:30pm. Tickets £5 advance from The Hub Ticket Office. A very limited number of tickets will be available at the Regent Road gate on the night, £8