Calton Hill fire fear on Beltane night

CALTON Hill is set to be sealed off for a night to stop hundreds of people gathering there for unofficial pagan celebrations amid fears dry weather has turned the beauty spot into a "tinder box".

Crowds of spectators and performers such as fire jugglers are expected to converge on the hill to celebrate the start of summer, despite the traditional Beltane Fire Festival being cancelled.

Organisers of the world-famous event believe many people from across the UK and abroad are still unaware that it is not going ahead on April 30 this year.

They also believe many will want to go to Calton Hill anyway for "spiritual" reasons, or as a protest over an alleged lack of council support for the event.

But council officials are worried about a fire breaking out on the bone-dry hill, and are concerned the park and historic monuments could be damaged. They are looking at sealing off the hill and calling in the police to ensure there is no trouble.

The fire festival was first staged on Calton Hill in 1988 in a bid to revive some of the ancient Celtic traditions surrounding the start of the summer season.

Up to 15,000 people have flocked to the event, which organisers bill as Europe’s biggest fire festival.

But this year’s Beltane was axed last month amid claims of "deliberate sabotage" by the council.

Organisers said "bureaucratic" demands that a full lease had to be applied for and a strict set of conditions met before Beltane could go ahead were responsible for the festival being called off.

The council insisted it had acted fairly towards the festival, but that it now had concerns about unofficial celebrations being staged on the hill. A council spokesman said: "Our officials say that the land on Calton Hill is so dry because of the lack of rain that it’s like a tinder box at the moment and it might not see any rain between now and April 30.

"Public safety is of paramount importance and any unofficial event within a park presents a risk to members of the public.

"Responsibility for Calton Hill lies with the council and in the wider interests of public safety we may restrict access if we believe that this would prevent possible harm to members of the public. We’ll be speaking to Lothian and Borders Police about this."

Helen Moore, the artistic director of the festival, insisted the only official Beltane event this year was being held at the Venue nightclub, on Calton Road, with a host of regular Beltane performers, live bands and DJs providing the entertainment.

But Ms Moore said Calton Hill was still likely to be a "focal point" for many people who normally go to Beltane.

"We know the council is concerned because our performers who have been rehearsing on Calton Hill have been getting quite a bit of hassle. Parks staff have been getting on to them for being on the acropolis.

"Although we’re not staging anything on Calton Hill, it’ll still be a focal point for some people to celebrate Beltane.

City licensing convener Dougie Kerr, who is also the local councillor for the Calton Hill area, said he was concerned about the problem and would be looking into what might need to be done to stop unofficial celebrations.

"We’ll be looking at measures to ensure nothing takes place there this year. I’ve no problem with closing it off in the interests of public safety," he said.

Police, however, said they had no plans to post extra officers to Calton Hill on April 30.