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13 November 2014

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You are in: Edinburgh, Fife and East Scotland > People & Places > Arts & Culture > Beltane Fire Festival

At the Acropolis

At the Acropolis. Photo by Tom Bishop.

Beltane Fire Festival

John Wilson shares an account of the pomp and pageantry accompanying the event held to mark the coming of summer and the Celtic fertility festival. For those who don't know, the night of 30 April is the time and Calton Hill is the place.

Blue Man in the procession

Blue Man in the procession, photo by Julia Sanches

After months of preparations, negotiations, rehearsals, health and safety briefings, Beltane comes together.  Unstoppable by flood (although the weather tried very hard last year) or fire (you'll see a lot of this on the night).

At the blast of a horn the drums begin the primal rhythm which will carry us through the next three hours of ritual and pageantry.

See highlights from this year's Festival in the photo gallery.

Fire arch

White Woman at the Fire Arch by Miguel Arredondo.

From its beginnings as a personal celebration in the mid-80s, Edinburgh's Beltane Festival has grown into a huge spectacle organised by the Beltane Fire Society with over 300 performers and an audience of thousands.

The event has grown so much over the years that the Council became concerned about safety and now requires a detailed event programming process to ensure public safety.  Edinburgh Council together with the emergency services help Beltane Fire Society develop a risk assessment and safety plan.  On the night, volunteer stewards are backed up by professional security personnel and a police presence. Additionally, first aiders are positioned along the procession and an ambulance complete with paramedics is on site.  With a crowd of over ten thousand revellers on a hill in the dark, nothing is left to chance.

The Green Man, old and hoary, mounts the Acropolis (the National Monument) and surveys his domain.

The igniting of the Neid Fire, which is started by hand using a bow drill and thistle down tinder, gives birth to a new flame which will be used to light all the other fires on the hill symbolising new beginnings for the coming year.

Dancer at Fire Point

Fire Point - photo by Ove Hansen.

The May Queen and her consort the Green Man proceed around the hill guided by the Blue Men and escorted by the White Women and the relentless rhythm of the processional drummers. They pass through the Fire Arch into another world and visit the camps of each element in turn, Air, Earth, Water, Fire, being presented with a gift by each.

The Red Men, born of chaos on this night, are drawn to the White Women, the epitome of order. They repeatedly charge the procession (and perform some truly impressive acrobatics) but are rebuffed by the White Women.

Green Man rebirth

Green Man rebirth. Photo by Tom Bishop.

The procession makes its way to a hollow near the bonfire where all the performers have gathered in a great circle.  Overcome by the May Queen's beauty and spurred on by the energy of the Red Men, the Green Man touches the May Queen.  For this trespass, the Queen's handmaidens strike him dead and ritually strip his winter foliage, the lifeless body raised up for all to see. The May Queen takes pity on the Green Man and breathes new life into him.

The Green Man is reborn, young and virile, fit to join the May Queen as consort for another year.  He rejoices in his new life, unleashing a wild and energetic dance, and summer can begin. His rebirth mirrors the lighting of the bonfire which is the 'sacred flame' from which Beltane takes its name. The May Queen and Green Man make their way to the bonfire, passing around it three times, and light it from the Neid
Fire, signalling the end of winter and the coming of summer.

Observances complete, the throng makes its way to the Bower where the royal couple receive the good wishes and offerings of the various groups again. Here the Red Men, encouraged by the success of the Green Man, once again make overtures to the White Women and this time, having learned some guile and charm, finally succeed in convincing them to dance.

Beltane Fire Festival really is a highlight of the Edinburgh year, getting us ready for Summer with this revival of age-old Celtic pagan tradition embellished with a carnival atmosphere and the city's festival spirit. 

If you're attending Beltane wear appropriate clothing and footwear, carry all drinks in plastic bottles, prepare to be astounded by the feats of acrobatics and fire performance that await.  Under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.  Be prepared for the weather - it will be cold and may rain.   Don't bring glass, drums, loud instruments, animals or combustibles to the hill.  Finally, enjoy the festival.

last updated: 01/05/2009 at 13:04
created: 29/04/2009

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