Council threatens to close hill to unofficial Beltane celebrations

EDINBURGH council leaders have voiced fears of an unofficial pagan fire festival on Calton Hill and warned the area could be sealed off for safety reasons.

The traditional Beltane Festival, famous for its spectacular fire-juggling acts, has been cancelled, but hundreds may still make a pilgrimage to the site to stage their own celebrations on the night of 30 April.

Yesterday’s rain in the capital staved off fears that the previous dry spell could turn Calton Hill into a "tinder box".

Councillors had been worried the dry grass would pose a threat to revellers who could choose to stage their own unofficial fire displays. However, safety concerns mean the area is still likely to be sealed off to revellers in an attempt to maintain public order.

The Beltane annually drew crowds of up to 15,000 to celebrate the start of summer, until the event was scrapped last month.

Organisers accused the council of "deliberate sabotage" and said that strict conditions and "bureaucratic" demands forced the festival to be cancelled.

A council spokesman last night denied the allegations but said there were concerns about the safety implications of an unauthorised event. He said: "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.

"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. We’ll be speaking to Lothian and Borders Police about this."

An official Beltane event is being held at the Venue nightclub on Calton Road for performers who would normally congregate on Calton Hill.

But organisers said some may still head to the site for their own spiritual reasons, and warned that regular festival-goers from all over the UK and abroad may be unaware the event has been shelved.

The event’s artistic director, Helen Moore, said: "We know the council is concerned because our performers who have been rehearsing on Calton Hill have been getting quite a bit of hassle. Park 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."

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

At its height, it was described as the biggest fire festival in Europe and regularly drew huge crowds from all over the world.

It was a colourful spectacle involving hundreds of performers in elaborate costumes, drummers, fire jugglers and musicians.

Dougie Kerr, the city licensing convener 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."

A spokeswoman for Lothian and Borders Police said they had no plans to post extra officers to the area on 30 April.

She said: "We do not intend to send extra officers to Calton Hill on the night because the event has been cancelled."

The Beltane festival started as a reasonably small event but over the years grew to one of Edinburgh’s most famous free parties.

But as its popularity grew, the event’s organisers attracted criticism for the litter left after the festival, and damage to public monuments on Calton Hill.

The event’s future was jeopardised when organisers alleged the council imposed restrictive conditions on the festival.

Last month, they said they had no choice but to cancel Beltane on Calton Hill and have now moved celebrations indoors to the Venue.

The festival costs 9,000-10,000 to put on. This includes the cost of the clean-up (the largest single expenditure at 3,400), the hire of staging, scaffolding and security barriers, transport, paraffin, body-paint, medical cover, professional stewarding and miscellaneous materials for props and costumes.