Beltane Fire Festival
As the Beltane Fire Festival turns 20, Kirstin Innes speaks to the organisers and discovers the joy of celebrating, Celtic-style
(Photo: © Two Truths)
In 1988, a small group of enthusiasts, led by Angus Farquhar of industrial rockers Test Dept, approached the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, for funding. They wanted to stage an outdoor performance incorporating mythology about the ancient Celtic festival, Beltane, performed to welcome in the summer. Using fire, juggling, dance and a small troupe of drummers, they performed the ritual progress of the May Queen and her consort the Green Man on top of Calton Hill on 30 April that year. It was watched by about 100 of their friends.
‘Oh, it’s all become a creation myth, how it got started. It’s a bit of a legendary story,’ says Robyn Hambrook, Programme Director for the 20th birthday celebrations of a festival which now annually pulls crowds of over 8000 spectators. From what I can gather, it’s unusual for any member of the Beltane society to identify themselves in an interview, and Hambrook isn’t comfortable speaking for the very diverse interests of the society’s thousand-odd members - at least 300 of whom will be performing in the festival itself. Wisely, the events she’s programmed for the ten days leading up to Beltane don’t attempt to change the performance itself - rather, through a series of seminars, discussions, workshops and an intriguing-sounding Masterclass of Celebration, Hambrook wants people to consider not only the mythological significance of the festival, but what it has come to mean to all those who make the annual pilgrimage to Calton Hill to drink and dance by the fires.
‘We’re running forums to trace the history of the festival itself, and the changes - sometimes social, sometimes political - which have affected the way the festival runs, but we’re also really interested in why we celebrate.’
Although the performance itself is ceremonially structured and steeped in ritual significance, much of the appeal of Beltane is that it celebrates an all-encompassing philosophy. For example, it’s the eventual unification of the girning, chaotic and naked Red Men of the fire, and the orderly military formations of the White Women, guardians of the May Queen, that brings about the summer.
‘Beltane means so many diverse things to the participants that you can have all sorts of different celebrations happening up there on the same night. That’s what I think is so beautiful about it.’ She admits that the rituals of the procession itself can seem bewildering to newcomers, but maintains that the spirit of the event taps into something that everyone can understand. ‘At my first Beltane, I sat watching the procession go by, confused, and then stayed at the fire area, drank and had a party with my friends. It’s magical, up there - there’s a palpable sense of energy, stemming from spring, that you can really feel in the communal atmosphere. So many of the big old pagan festivals like Christmas/Wintermas have been commercialised, and I think we forget that it isn’t a luxury, celebrating. It’s a human need.’
The Beltane Fire Festival 20th birthday events begin on Fri 20 Apr: see www.beltane.org for full listings. The Beltane Fire Festival takes place on Calton Hill, Edinburgh on Mon 30 Apr.