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Yvette Morrissey


What is the best way to celebrate the arrival of summer in Edinburgh?

With fire, mischievous mythical creatures and acrobatic nudists! This and much more was at the center of the Beltane Fire Festival: a modern reinterpretation of the ancient Celtic ritual to ring in summer, put on by the Beltane Fire Society. The festival falls on April 30 each year, and has been held in Edinburgh since 1988.

As a new resident of Edinburgh (and Scotland), I was interested to experience the Gaelic take of the ritual that gets its roots from the Iron Age. When I heard the event was being held on Calton Hill at sundown, with the impressive backdrop of Arthurs Seat to the east and Edinburgh’s towns of old and new to the west, I was sold.

Yvette Morrissey

So what goes on at Beltane exactly? To understand the ritual a little better, it’s best to delve into the past. In ancient times, Beltane saw members of communities come together to celebrate the return of summer and fertility of the land. It also would have been a time when they put their stock out to pasture. Beltane roughly translates to ‘bright fire’ which is the central theme of the celebration. Farmers would ‘cleanse and protect’ their animals by leading them around (not through, thankfully) the flames. Beltane is also a celebration of another type of fertility (which explains the impressive half-naked acrobats smothered in red paint). During these times where a community’s sustenance depended on the fertility of their land and the well-being of their livestock, it makes perfect sense to celebrate the conclusion of winter and the arrival of summer.

Yvette Morrissey

So with all this in mind, I joined the group from Castle Rock Hostel and we made our way to Calton Hill. The festival started at sundown, first with the lighting of torches at the National Monument. I’d stepped back in time, into another world. The beating of drums stirred up animal excitement in the festival participants and the crowd and the procession began.

It was led by the May Queen, who represents purity, strength and growth; she is followed closely by the Horned God, who represents the life that grows on earth. They lead a cavalcade of colourful and mischievous characters representing earth, fire, water and air. The procession made their way anti-clockwise around Calton Hill where they eventually arrive at a huge bonfire.  It was fun to pretend I was living in pagan times, but reality put its hand up as I marveled at the costumes and make-up and realised that plenty of hard work had gone into this event. The festival finished with the performers dancing and cheering in a sea of red and white as the Horned Man is ‘reborn’ into the Green Man, so he and the May Queen can be together.

Overall, Beltane is a unique experience for the open-minded or those interested in pagan traditions. It is popular with locals, travellers and tourists alike and delves deeper into the past than any other festival in Edinburgh.

Though you will have to wait a year until the next Beltane, mark your calendar’s for April 30 now.

Yvette Morrissey.

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