Beltane Fire Festival
Fire in their bellies
Anna Docherty finds that, despite all the fire and face-paint, Beltane is less about theatrics and more about re-discovering the spirit of a community
Do you ever feel like you just don’t quite belong in a modern world? I’m not getting all new age-y on you, but in a fast-paced and fleeting society it can be difficult to find your place and feel part of a static community. Perhaps this is why, twenty-one years ago, a group of young individuals decided to re-ignite (quite literally) the fires of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane.
Beltane was traditionally rooted in historical generations and mythology. More than this it acted as a binding force for communities, being a festival in which farming people would come together and celebrate the fertility of their land and animals. Bonfires would be lit and the smoke from the fires would act as a purifying element and, as it cleared, a fresh new dawn would break.
In 1988, the festival experienced a revival and was moved to the bright lights of the big city, with Edinburgh’s Calton Hill becoming its modern day home. Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society have created an event that anyone can get involved with, be that on an intimate level or simply as one of thousands of spectators. They have succeeded in giving the festival a new birth and, at the same time, have taken the essence of the term ’festival’ back to its origins, by staging an event that is centred around and celebrates a community.
Promoter Robyn Hambrook explains; ‘Beltane has hit on something that is - and always will be - a basic human need: the need for community’. She continues; ‘It’s about a journey and the search for a culture that belongs to you’. Indeed, knitted right through the very core of Beltane are the threads that help bind a community and form unique cultures - shared experiences, creativity and a sense of trust. In a modern world of commercialism, Beltane has found its place without selling its soul to cans of lager or dodgy burger vans.
Hambrook believes that the kindred spirit of the festival has filtered through from its ancient past and creatively it has moved forward: ‘It is now a much more carefully organised affair, with a lot of artistic creativity and months of planning going into the celebrations’. This modern interpretation incorporates the traditional fire elements, but adds contemporary twists - with music, dance and outdoor theatrics. It’s a paint palate of colour and a lesson in amateur dramatics. But this is not to say that it has become a case of style over substance ‘It’s about an essential bonding journey, with groups practising together and forming lasting friendships’, says Hambrook.
‘It’s also about everyone’s little story and it means something to everyone involved’, she surmises. With so many festivals and events having lost their significance in present day, Beltane remains unique. ‘Many festivals don’t mean anything anymore and have just become commercialised affairs, Beltane is different’ she says. ‘Visitors, who don’t know exactly what it’s all about, still feel something palpable and rich’.
So, for all its fire, theatrics, face-paint and sparkle, Beltane is actually quite organic and basic in its needs. Simply a bunch of people looking for a most fundamental human comfort: the spirit of community. You can’t ask for more than that.
The Beltane Fire Festival, Thu 30 Apr, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, 0131 473 200. £7 (£5 in advance), get tickets from Hub Tickets, Castlehill, Edinburgh, 0131 473 2000, www.beltane.org
Name Kate Kirkwood
Occupation Events Assistant
I was introduced to Beltane Fire Society by a work colleague, during the summer of 2005. That year I made some fantastic friends and was persuaded to go back, despite my pathetic pleas of not having enough time. I experienced my first Beltane as a performer in 2006 and I’ve been involved in almost all of the quarter day festivals since. The big festivals are Beltane and Samhuinn, but the society also celebrate Imbolc and Lughnasadh at the mid season points.
Since moving into the city (after having lived in fairly rural areas throughout my childhood) the society has given me the inspiration and motivation to re-connect with the outdoors. There is an emphasis on the changing seasons and we tend to spend a large part of our rehearsals outside. Nothing beats trekking up to the Pentland hills or down to the beach and just enjoying being out in the open air. You re-discover the subtle changes in the seasons, such as the first snowdrops or watching the colours change in the trees.
In preparing for Beltane we hold an Open Meeting, where groups explain their ideas and encourage people to join them. Weekly rehearsals begin and the first couple of weeks are spent figuring out which group fits you. The rest of the nine weeks are spent making costumes, inventing a performance and rehearsing outside until you can’t feel your toes or see anyone in the dark. Fundraising also takes up a lot of time.
Beltane is important to me because of the strong group aspect; they are my own little community. Whenever the society has faced struggles, we pull together – because we all have a passion for it. The reasons behind the passions may be different, but we all want to see Beltane happen.