Beltane - The Hills are Alive

Feature by Harriet Shawcross | 16 Apr 2006

It's over: for months we have struggled out of bed in the darkness, and watched with grim resignation as dusk begins to fall at 3pm, but now spring is finally here, and we can bid farewell to the terminal darkness of another Edinburgh winter. This is the time for lighter evenings, fewer layers and, if you're of a pagan persuasion, the most important celebration of the year – Beltane.

Beltane is derived from the Gaelic words 'bright fire', and is the annual celebration of the blossoming of spring, derived from pre-Christian festivals that coincided with the ancient pastoral event of moving livestock to their summer grazing. Today, the Edinburgh Beltane celebrations are the largest in the UK, and draw crowds of up to 12,000, who flock to Calton Hill to beat winter into submission in an orgiastic explosion of fire, dancing, drumming and body paint. The celebrations are led by a reincarnation of the 'May Queen' who processes around Calton Hill surrounded by her 'White Women Warriors' and male counterpart, the 'Horned God'. During the processions, the May Queen overcomes the lascivious red men, and their Beastie Drummers, and vanquishes the Horned God, who is reincarnated as the 'Green Man', the essence of spring's fertility. The celebration culminates in the marriage of the May Queen and Green Man, and the lighting of two ritual fires, whose smoke and flames are intended to purify spectators as they pass between them.

Contrary to popular belief the ceremony is not purely pagan in origin, but draws on mythology from across Europe, to create what The Beltane Fire Society hopes is a truly community orientated event, capable of binding 'together a community in the common goal of its own good fortune'. Unlike Hogmanay and the Edinburgh Festival, Beltane has escaped the marketing and media moguls, and is aimed at the people of Edinburgh, rather than curious tourists. As a result the event is not widely advertised, and has grown in popularity largely based upon word of mouth, and the work of The Beltane Fire Society, who have been masterminding the festivities since 1988.

However, as the success of the festival has escalated, so have the running costs, which are expected to reach £10,000, this year, and have resulted in the event being ticketed (£3 available from The Hub.) This is a small price to pay for a chance to be involved in the explosion of primal energy, and body painted pandemonium that is Beltane - Edinburgh's weirdest and wildest festival.