CELEBRATING SPRING AT THE BELTANE FIRE FESTIVAL
This past Saturday, I found myself surrounded by fire, drumming, and hundreds of people joined together to celebrate the height of Spring and promise of returning Summer. Beltane (Gaelic for ‘bright fire’) is an ancient Iron Age Celtic festival, symbolising the change in seasons and emergence from a dark, cold winter. A celebration of the light and growth to come, the Celtic people honoured this time by displaying greenery, baking special bannocks, and most importantly, lighting the Beltane fire. Fire was seen as a purifier, and provided the opportunity to cleanse and renew both humans and animals that had spent the long winter indoors. During the celebrations, fire was often walked, danced, and jumped around by members of the community. Farmers would have also driven their cattle between bonfires to cleanse and protect them before being put out into the fields.
In modern times, fire remains a central element in these celebrations. Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival is a modern take on this ancient holiday, and is celebrated by incorporating the Scottish traditions of street theatre, music and pageantry. It’s definitely a unique experience, and something you won’t want to miss if you’re visiting Edinburgh around May 1st!
Curious to know more about this ancient tradition? Keep scrolling!
What to Expect
These days, Europe’s largest Beltane celebration takes place in the heart of Edinburgh. As MacKenzie and I made our way up Calton Hill, we were greeted by fiery torches, iron sculptures, and people in all different versions (and stages) of dress, waiting with anticipation for the festivities to start. The procession, which started at 21:30 sharp, starts at the National Monument, and proceeds counter-clockwise around the path, stopping at various spots and meeting with different groups along the way. Carried by the beating of drums, the procession is led by the May Queen and Green Man, symbols for purity and life, respectively. The May Queen and Green Man make their way around the hill on a counter-clockwise path, and are met by an array of characters who help or hinder their progress along the way. Boundaries are blurred between spectator and performer, as characters painted red and blue make their way along the path, stopping to interact with guest and other characters as they move along. Near midnight, after a dramatic performance involving music, dancing, and acrobatics, the May Queen and Green Man spark the beginning of summer by lighting a massive bonfire.
Attending the festival
Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival takes place on the eve of May 1st on the top of Calton Hill. As the event has grown larger in the last few years, tickets are required for entry. Gates open at 19:30, and the event lasts until about 1 in the morning. Make sure to visit the official Beltane site to learn more about the history, tickets, maps, and more.
Things to note
– Come with and open mind. If this is your first time celebrating/observing an ancient tradition like Beltane, come with curiosity and a willingness to learn! It might also be helpful to do some additional research so that you can understand the symbolism and storyline the celebration follows.
–Beware of fire. This is a fire festival, which means there will be a lot of fire! While safety measures are in place, you can never be too careful. Don’t get too close, and be sure to wear natural fabrics.
–Nudity! Just a heads up that there may be some nudity involved in the performances (personally, I don’t know how they can stand it – it’s cold!)
–Anticipate the movement of the group. It’s worth reading the map ahead of time to see where the procession will move. We got to the first location, the fire arch, while the main event was starting, and were close enough to see all the action. There will be hundreds in attendance, so it’s worth getting to one or two of the spots a little early if you want a closer look.
–Don’t just follow the procession. On the other hand, if you can’t get to the front of the procession, fear not! There are many side events happening that tend to have a smaller crowd. It’s dark, so just look around for some fire to tell you where another group is performing.
Have you been to a festival like this? Are you doing anything to celebrate Spring? I’ve personally been focusing on my house plants (so many new leaves!) and cleaning out my wardrobe.