City bans public from Beltane hill

A FRESH row over the axing of Edinburgh’s Beltane celebrations has flared up after it emerged security guards, parks staff and police officers are being drafted in to prevent access to a city beauty spot.

Calton Hill, where the world-famous fire festival has been held for the last 15 years, is to be closed to public access for the first time in living memory in a bid to curb any unofficial festivities.

But the city council has come under fire for spending taxpayers’ money to ensure no-one is allowed on to the hill tomorrow night.

Several thousand pounds will be spent on temporary barriers, hiring security guards and paying city staff overtime during the 12-hour closure.

In previous years there has been no cost to the public purse as the Beltane Fire Society always picked up the bill for security and clean-up costs, which last year totalled 14,000.

Organisers said it was "outrageous" of the council to go ahead with a complete closure, comparing it to moves by the Kirk to ban Beltane celebrations in the city 150 years ago. They said recent rain made a mockery of claims that the ban was being considered because of "tinderbox" conditions on the hill.

But city chiefs insisted they took the decision because of fears over public safety and damage to monuments .

This year’s Beltane celebrations were axed last month because of the rising costs involved, although the council was blamed for insisting on an official lease for the first time .

The Evening News revealed last week how the authority was considering a ban on public access to Calton Hill, after Beltane organisers admitted many revellers may still go there, either unaware the festival had been axed or for "spiritual reasons".

Now the council has announced security guards will be hired and extra patrols mounted by parks staff in a bid to keep people out.

A council spokesman said "extra surveillance" has been promised by Lothian and Borders Police following talks between the authority and police chiefs.

He added: "Access to Calton Hill will be restricted from 6pm tomorrow to 6am on May 1 following concerns an unofficial event may take place that could pose a serious threat to public safety.

"An unofficial event of this nature taking place without stewarding in an area that is poorly lit could result in accidents and injuries."

Herbert Coutts, the council’s director of culture and leisure, added: "It’s true that Calton Hill is common good land for the city but we can still close such an area off in the interests of public safety and that’s our main reason for taking this decision, with great reluctance, and only after a great deal of discussion within the council."

Peter Croy, senior operations manager at Edinburgh-based Rock Steady Security, said the company had been hired by the council to help prevent access to Calton Hill on Wednesday, but declined to discuss any details .

A source said it was thought around 2000 was being paid for 20 stewards to work the 12-hour shift.

Helen Moore, artistic director of the Beltane Fire Society, said: "The decision to close off Calton Hill is completely unjustifiable.

"Calton Hill has become a traditional spot for celebrating Beltane but the council just seems completely determined to suppress it. It’s exactly what happened to Beltane celebrations in the past. To deny people the chance to gather on Calton Hill is just outrageous."

Meanwhile Peter Irvine, whose company Unique Events organises the city’s Hogmanay festivities, said: "It seems a pity than an event that in its essence is about spirit and freedom of expression is threatened because it doesn’t fit into an acceptable format.

"Beltane provides an annual festival for the city that’s unique, authentic and put together on a shoestring."