Beltane: A brief history

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ON April 30, thousands will climb Calton Hill for this year’s Beltane Festival, a party which includes fire, drumming and dancers dressed in little more than a coat of red paint.

But don’t let the flaming hula hoops deceive you – this is one of the oldest festivals in Scotland.

Bealltainn, as it is known in Gaelic, is a Celtic ritual that marked the transition from spring to summer and was once celebrated widely across Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Linked closely to the agricultural calendar, traditional celebrations included driving herds of cattle between two fires, an action believed to protect and purify them, whilst ashes from the fires might be sprinkled over the soil to increase the earth’s fertility. An 18th century account of a Perthshire festival described how herdsmen broke up oatcakes while praying for the protection of their livestock. Other customs included collecting blossoms, burning juniper branches and drinking sacred water.

Although festivities faded throughout the years, the tradition of crowning a Beltane Queen was revived in Peebles in 1899.

However, it is Edinburgh that hosts the most exuberant interpretation of the festival. In a complex ceremony that lasts four hours, the May Queen is born and ushers in the start of summer, whilst being distracted by the lewd and lascivious actions of the ‘Red Men.’

The festival reaches a climax with audience and participants alike urged to celebrate with a club night involving ceilidh bands, DJs and – for those still awake – an invitation to “Drum till Dawn”.