Beltane in Edinbugh
Arriving for Beltane
A deep Scottish brogue erupts from above, “Whit’s this – ah hear a Yank!!! ” As I’m likely the sole American present I stop and scan the crowd scaling this hill for its source. Seeing only unlikely candidates nearby, I continue climbing.
Earlier that day I arrive by train and take time to wander through a town that two centuries ago was home to the author Robert Louis Stevenson. Just like his character Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, today’s Edinburgh is split into two parts. One half is the 18th century Georgian town holding some fine examples of early community planning – that’s the Jekyll section. However my time is spent in the dark and mysterious Hyde section, walking dimly lit medieval closes along the Royal Mile from its highest point at Edinburgh Castle down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Twilight comes late here, around 10pm, the delayed sunset owing to the high sun angle at this far northern latitude. I leave my hotel and taxi a short distance to the base of Calton Hill, whose easily recognizable crown is topped by the partially completed National Monument. This structure, modeled after the Acropolis, was initially an embarrassment to the city but today the surrounding park is ground-zero for the festivities.
The Sights of Beltane
The brogue and I meet a bit further up the hillside. A well-dressed man in a Tartan tam, he seems out of place among the neo-hippies gathered here. As we climb together he explains that as a child his family lived for a time in Akron, Ohio, so he immediately recognizes my accent. Now he’s a curator at the National Museum, so I guess that makes him more than qualified to educate me on all things Beltane.
He starts at the beginning – at its core Beltane is a pre-Christian ritual celebrating fertility and marking the beginning of summer. Originating in Scandinavia several thousand years ago, as Celtic culture spread it grew to encompass the United Kingdom as well. But by the start of the 20th century all publicly held celebrations in the UK had ceased, and only in 1988 was it revived as a local art event put on by a musical collective. He went on to explain the key players in the pageant I was soon to witness – the May Queen and Green Man, representing Mother Earth and the energy of summer respectively.
The Fire Festival at Beltane
Soon the spectacle begins and I push forward to get as near to the Acropolis as possible. A procession of characters led by the May Queen and Green Man circle the hilltop, marching through areas representing earth elements. Soon they’re ambushed by flame-wielding, hissing Red Beasties, characters symbolizing chaos, but are rescued with help from the White Warrior Women, spirits who bring truth and law and order to the cycle. The march continues back to the Acropolis, where the Green Man is reborn in a ritual bonfire lit to close out the old season and properly invite in the new.
Although the revival probably began in the late 80’s as a solemn and spiritual event recreating a ritual, today’s celebration has morphed and acquired many elements of a rave. This change has certainly been aided by the Scottish passion for fire, fun, and imbibing huge amounts of single malt, as well as the semi-nude Red Beasties. I’d like to say I attended solely for the spiritual aspects, but truth be told, I love a party too.
When you go:
– This festival culminates the cross-quarter day of May 1st, and gates open at 6:30pm on April 30th. While the festival initially was free, tickets are now required. More information on the festival can be found at: beltanefiresociety.wordpress.com
– Expect temperatures in the high 30’s/low 40’s, and it can get windy and wet. However, the night I attended it was clear and calm with temps hovering at freezing – so dress appropriately.
– To indulge in local beverages (single malt or a pint) and pub grub (haggis or mealie pudding anyone?), visit the “World’s End” pub, so named because its location originally was on the edge of the medieval city walls.
For more about Scotland.
‘Need ‘ bonfire : © Stefan Schaefer on Wikimedia Commons – remixed by Steve Smith
Red Beasties : © Stefan Schaefer on Wikimedia Commons
National Monument : © Tim Traynor on Wikimedia Commons – remixed by Steve Smith
Beltane Procession: © Stefan Schaefer on Wikimedia Commons – remixed by Steve Smith