Waking Summer at Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival

by Keith Savage · 4 comments

Edinburgh's Beltane Fire Festival

From time immemorial, Celtic pagans have celebrated four great festivals that straddled the equinoxes and solstices: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. These festivals were both practical and mystical in nature, tied as they were to the herding of livestock and the appeasement of capricious spirits and faeries.

Beltane historically occurred on the first of May to mark the beginning of summer and the time when the cattle were driven out to summer pastures. Arcane rituals using special bonfires were performed to protect the cattle, crops, and people. Fire played an integral role in the ceremony as a protective buffer against evil. Feasts and drinking added a celebratory nature to the proceedings, and yellow flowers symbolically representing fire were strewn over dwellings for yet more protection.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Sadly, these cultural antiquities were largely stamped out by the time of the 20th century. The crush of Christianity wiped out the preceding shamanic and pagan practices of the Isles’s native peoples, but all was not lost. Folklorists retained tales of the pagan rites, and today there is a revival of these ancient ceremonies and traditions that, at least, make real a semblance of what these celebrations must have been like.

And Edinburgh is home to one of the best: The Beltane Fire Festival.

My 2014 trip around southern Scotland culminated in several nights in Edinburgh at the end of April. This was no mere happy accident. I’d heard of the Beltane Fire Festival and wanted to attend it, though I only knew three things about it: There would be pagans, there would be fire, and it would all take place atop Calton Hill. So I bought a ticket.

April 30th was a rainy day with Baltic winds that made it feel more like January than the end of the pagan spring. I hiked through Old Town, across North Bridge, and up to Calton Hill where a crowd began to swell. The smell of burning torches, burning joints, and drying bladderwrack filled the air as we began the winding ascent to the crown of Calton Hill and its follies. People all around me clinked, but the sound was not armor. No, the sound was the noise beer cans make when they rubbed against one another. I had no beer in me or on me. Surely that wouldn’t be a problem, right?

Thousands of people swarmed across Calton Hill, many in outlandish body paint and cloaks, their faces painted with pagan swirls and symbols, their hair laced with flowers or thistle or laurel. Some were nearly naked. I wondered what magic salve they had used for I was shivering and they seemed not to notice the frigid weather.

To my dismay, only various fried foods were being sold atop the hill – no brews to take off the chill. Rookie mistake. After an hour of standing around and as the light faded around 9:30pm, the festival began.

A grand chorus of thundering drums shook the hilltop as giant lattice-work sculptures were set aflame. Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival is no haphazard revel. There is a running order for the various movements, performances, and groups that tells an ancient story. At the heart of this story is the May Queen. Her awakening and subsequent procession is a metaphor for the blossoming of summer. The Green Man awakens her, and in the course of her journey she encounters the Reds, Blues, and Beasties en route to the spirit realm. I stood transfixed among the crowd as the May Queen and her attendants passed us. The combination of unceasing drums, gouts of flame, and otherworldly dress combined for a powerful experience that maybe, just maybe, tapped into something ancient and still sleeping.

A chill rain began spitting from the sky, but this is Scotland. On any given day it wouldn’t matter, and it certainly held no power over the celebration of Beltane. Processions of torches followed a dragon helmed by a dozen people as it danced through the night in the wake of the May Queen. Everywhere the Reds capered through the crowds, grasping at onlookers like naked imps.

Fire burned away the night. Torches, burning wheels, gouts of flame, flaming bolas swung expertly by the denizens of the other world. My photos, inadvertently hazy, actually capture the strangeness of the festival quite well. It was a blur.

The sculptures that blazed around the hill made it difficult to forget the fertility aspect of Beltane.

The fires and the dancing and the drums pressed deep into the night. By midnight the May Queen’s journey was complete as she seated herself at court.

Summer had been awakened, and all danced with glee.

ChristineNo Gravatar November 5, 2016 at 2:28 AM

What was the price of a festival ticket then? Thanks! ~C.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 5, 2016 at 3:15 PM

I think it was around £15, but that was 2.5 years ago.

SabineNo Gravatar September 2, 2015 at 12:00 PM

Great to read your post! I have been to the Beltane Fire Festival in april 2015. There was no rain, but the wind was very chilly. It was a stunning spectacle, though difficult to watch sometimes because of the number of people. I also made a short video about it, you can find it on my blog.

UmaNo Gravatar August 21, 2015 at 1:29 AM

I have heard of this festival before through friends …. I want to see it in person someday soon!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: