About This Festival
How many holidays, seasons and festivals have you celebrated by lighting a fire? We’re not talking about the Yule Log on TV, but the real thing—bright, hot, passionate fire. Pack your bags for Edinburgh and learn about fire’s role in the Beltane Fire Festival to welcome the longer days as we careen towards summer.
Drama-phobic folks need not worry. You don’t have to join the pageant, but can be content to watch along. We can’t guarantee that you won’t end up wanting to rip your clothes off and dance around the gigantic bonfire, however.
The ancient festival of Beltane marked the beginning of summer, and was held on the night before May 1. Because the changing of the seasons was a big deal to the pastoral Celtic peoples, the start of summer meant a time of light and growth to come. The celebration included baking Beltane bannocks, displaying fresh greenery and handfasting (which could be viewed as a temporary or permanent marriage, as the individuals preferred).
One of the most important parts of the Beltane celebration was the lighting of the Beltane fires. The bonfires represented the growing power of the sun from spring to midsummer. Cattle and farm animals were driven around the fires, and brave humans would leap across the bonfires.
Don’t be disappointed, but the current festival doesn’t involve livestock. Run by the Beltane Fire Society, it’s a procession, beginning at the National Monument and winds counter-clockwise along a path. Leading the parade is the May Queen and the Green Man, and at its end, they light a huge bonfire. Dancing, food, drink and music ensue.
Since spring festivals celebrate abundance and earthly delights, the Beltane Fire Festival includes some folks who prefer to experience the evening without clothes. If you are threatened by the temptation, duck into the bower with your sweetie and strengthen the bonds of your relationship by being handfasted. It won’t hurt.
Procession Story Line
You can sit back and watch the pageantry, or you can learn a little more about the story line to further your enjoyment. The performers enact the ritual story of the lighting of the sacred Bel Fire. The procession moves around the hill, with the May Queen at its head, accompanied by her White Women, the Green Man and the processional drummers, whose distinctive beat urge the group towards summer.
The Green Man and May Queen are interrupted by different groups who help or hinder their progress toward the end of the procession—and their fate. Once the chaotic Reds have joined up and the Green Man has been killed and reborn, the procession is complete but not yet finished. All retire to the Bower to dance, eat and commemorate the changing of the seasons as invited couples are handfasted by the May Queen.
Take some time to walk through the Old Town of Edinburgh, which includes the medieval fortress of Edinburgh Castle. In this part of town is the Royal Mile (a long street exactly one Scots mile long), featuring Reformation buildings, narrow closes, kirks, turrets and plenty of nooks and crannies. Compare that with the neoclassical New Town with its grand Georgian Terraces. Together these parts of Edinburgh were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
From the Organizer
The festival takes place on Calton Hill. It is a procession, which starts at the National Monument (know to Beltaners as the Acropolis) and proceeds anti-clockwise around the path meeting various groups along the way. The procession is driven by the beat of drums which urge it inexorably towards summer. At the procession’s head is the May Queen and the Green Man, followed by a cavalcade of characters who are intrinsically linked to them and their journey. Their destination is punctuated by various groups who either help or hinder their progress towards the Green Man’s fate and the May Queen’s destiny. After a dramatic stage performance signifying the inception of summer the May Queen and Green Man spark the birth of summer by lighting a huge bonfire. The performance then moves into its community phase. All the participants congregate in a place called the Bower. From here the finishing movements of the festival are played out in a dance of reds and whites. This is also where the home comforts of warmth, food and drink are provided to the tired and often very cold performers and crew. The boundaries between performers and audience then fades and the festival, performers, music and audience drift off into the night, taking away the memories of a unique and special event.