One Capital event we must reignite

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THE cancellation of this year’s Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill was blamed on spiralling costs and a lack of support from the city council’s culture and leisure department.

Thus, ironically, April 30, the eve of the council elections, will go unmarked by the characteristic procession and bonfire to celebrate the ancient Celtic festival.

Initial reactions to this news have focused on the loss to Edinburgh. But it runs deeper than many realise.

That Edinburgh has lost a festival with tourist appeal is evident in Edinburgh and Lothians Tourist Board’s recent comment to the Evening News: "It’s sad and disappointing that it’s been cancelled this year and we hope it will be resurrected in the future. The event is one of the few in Edinburgh’s eclectic calendar which celebrates our Celtic roots and heritage. It provides fantastic pictures which are beamed around the world."

And, indeed, the festival is visually stunning. The torch-lit procession, accompanied by powerful drumming, opens with fire sculptures suspended between the pillars of the Acropolis.

Then the procession led by a flower-bedecked May Queen, with woad-daubed warriors to smooth its path, would wind its way around the hill, passing through elemental points where performers made offerings to the Earth’s renewed fertility. At the Fire Point, performers had spectators swarming.

From humble origins, the festival grew rapidly. Launched 15 years ago by visionary artists, it had become the largest fire festival in Europe, comparable with Shetland’s Up Helly Aa and Valencia’s Fallas festival in scale and community participation.

Beltane is an internationally-acclaimed event, receiving coverage by the BBC and Channel 4. It has also featured in numerous magazine s, including National Geographic, Germany’s Marie Claire, as well as international tourist guides such as France’s Guide Michelin .

Fusing the Roman Flower Festival - which bequeathed Britain the medieval traditions of May Queens and May Poles - with the Celtic tradition of celebrating spring, the contemporary festival rekindled part of Scotland’s cultural heritage.

Historically, Beltane rites had dwindled since the Reformation’s attempts to obliterate so-called "superstitious practices" of Catholicism. By the late 20th century, all but a shred of the formerly widespread festivities remained in remote corners of folk memory.

Traditionally, Scotland’s beacon hills would have been ablaze at Beltane. Since fire was sacred to the Celts, as the School for Scottish and Celtic Studies’ Dr Emily Lyle explained at a Beltane Fire Society conference, ritual "Neid Fires" were created in each village.

This involved the extinguishing of all hearth-fires and the making of new fire by rubbing two special sticks together. From this sacred fire, "clavies" (embers) then re-lit the community’s hearth fires.

In keeping with this tradition, at Beltane 2002, a single flame produced in this way lit processional torches and the bonfire .

ALTHOUGH this bonfire had safety barriers placed around it, in an urban environment it still had importance, reminding revellers to watch the eastern horizon for the restoration of Beltane’s "Big Sun".

Fortunately, for coming generations, images of this Celtic revival will remain in the impressive archive of the Beltane festivals. However, today Edinburgh people are denied the chance to be moved by a unique event celebrating their cultural heritage. For regular participants, the festival’s disappearance from the city has struck hard. Pete Renwick, a fire performer, said: "The loss will be felt most by the 200 to 300 performers who gather and rehearse for up to two months, putting in their own time and money to produce one of the most spectacular events of the year."

Having always striven to be as inclusive as possible, Beltane has over time nurtured the creativity of thousands of participants like Mr Renwick .

BFS members come from a wide range of backgrounds, from bank workers to students to lone parents. Time and again they have explained how participation has developed their confidence, personal creativity and team-working skills, as well as experience of project management .

Unsurprisingly, such experience has fostered numerous careers.

Angus Farquar, the festival’s founder, is now artistic director of the nva, the Glasgow-based arts organisation, staging spectacular outdoor events. Former Beltane May Queen, Liz Rankin, is now choreographer at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And long-term performer Chloe Dear is the producer of innovative shows with the Edinburgh-based Boilerhouse. But although Beltane has been shown to contribute a great deal to Edinburgh, this hasn’t been sufficient to satisfy the city council that it’s worth funding.

Mr Farquar said: "Their failure to place one of Scotland’s most popular grassroots festivals at the centre of their festivals’ strategy is a total disgrace."

But what might be the reasons for this lack of support?

Some suspect that in a culture encouraging rigorously-controlled public events, despite its excellent safety record, the festival is too anarchic, with no explicit start and finish time.

Certainly, local residents haven’t tolerated drumming for one long night each year. And the festival’s pagan overtones have disturbed some Kirk members, with fundamentalists staging protests at each festival. But in an era of multiculturalism, with Edinburgh’s Hindu community supported with their Dushera festival on the same site, this isn’t an attitude the council could publicly avow.

PERSONALLY, I suspect that the reasons lie more with money. Having always refused to be drawn down the route of obtaining corporate sponsorship, the BFS, a non-profit-making community arts organisation, has long struggled to find alternative ways of meeting the festival’s costs.

In 1997, a council grant was axed, and since then, costs created by public safety requirements and insurance have spiralled, with the budget reaching 14,000 last year - a sum that ironically is very small in the scale of outdoor festivals.

Despite offers from companies including breweries, the BFS has resolutely rejected such corporate sponsors. Feeling their inevitable result to be fetters on authentic celebration, Beltane’s vibrancy bears testimony to the practice of artistic freedom.

This isn’t an attitude the council shares. In fact, all its festivals bed-fellow with business. And thus, although Hogmanay and the Fringe Festival are popular, criticism has been voiced at their over-regulation, resulting in increasingly exclusive and soulless events sponsored by banks.

In naming what the Beltane Fire Festival has achieved and what Edinburgh will lose in choosing not to support it, I hope to raise people’s consciousness that an authentic festival is about much more than hard economics.

Many people appreciate the Fallas festival and Up Helly Aa precisely because they’re of the people, for the people. And it’s primarily for this reason that the festival city shouldn’t turn its back on Beltane.

Helen Moore is an organiser with the Beltane Fire Society