Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival 2019 to focus on climate change

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Edinburgh’s world-famous Beltane Fire Festival has been overhauled so that the spectacular show to be staged atop Calton Hill tonight tackles climate change for the first time.

The central character of the May Queen will be seen expressing rage at the damage being done to the planet at the outset of the four-hour performance, which marks the changing of the seasons.

Her ceremonial costume is being altered with recycled materials to portray oil spills, deforestation and waste to depict “the earth as it truly is.”

Members of the 300-strong cast in the show, which has been running for more than 30 years, have been encouraged to use recycled materials in their costumes.

Organisers have pledged to look at less harmful ways of creating the fire effects which draw 8,000 revellers to the landmark on the last night of April to herald the arrival of summer.

First held in 1988, the fire festival celebrates “the return of the fertility of the land at a time when livestock would have been out to pasture.”

This year's show will have a new focus on climate change. Pic: Ian Georgeson

This year's show will have a new focus on climate change. Pic: Ian Georgeson

However, organisers have decided to “ramp up its green message” by altering the “ordinarily stoic” May Queen, played by Katie O’Neill this year.

A blog posted on the festival website states: “The world as we know it is dying. We’re living through a major extinction event. Even if our societies can stomach the changes it will take to limit global warming, we are – for most of the planet – reaching a point of no return. Our planet is dying, and collectively we are living through the cycles of grief. This year’s Beltane reflects that grief.

“The May Queen – embodiment of the Earth – arises this year, not as the perfect flower of tradition, but as the Earth as it truly is – covered with plastic, oil spills, and on fire. She is angry. She is sad. She is grieving for what is lost.”

In a video message, O’Neill said: “Beltane honours the goddess, the divine feminine that is within all of us, regardless of gender. It’s about fostering qualities of care, compassion, community, equity, empathy, collaboration and communication.

“The May Queen’s story and character this year is quite different from the past. When she rises out of the Acropolis on Calton Hill she is not the flowery goddess she has always been.

“She is really angry, looks down at her dress covered in oil spills, pesticides and deforestation and is enraged. She wants to call war.

“But she comes out of her state of anger, which is ultimately from a place of fierce love for the earth and her children. Her story is one of alchemy and of taking that anger and turning it into joy.”

Festival trustee Bradley McArthur said: “The May Queen will look as majestic as normal, but for anyone who has been to Beltane before, her regalia will look different.

“When she is awakened she is very much in an abused state, to represent how much the earth has been abused. There will be changes in her mannerisms and behaviour.

“There will be subtle differences in how she carries herself throughout the night, moves about the hill and interacts with certain groups.

“She will very angry at the start, but that tempers off a bit as she realises you don’t have to be angry to be strong or defend what you believe is right.”