Summer Loving: Beltane Fire Festival

The hills are alive with the sound of drumming...

Article by Fergus Ray Murray | 14 Apr 2009

On 30 April every year, around three hundred performers and up to fifteen thousand punters climb Calton Hill for the Beltane Fire Festival. Athletic hippies in nothing but red paint and thongs make human pyramids, fire dancers spin their toys hypnotically, and drummers beat out mad rhythms at length... but, er, why does this all happen?

Beltane is an ancient pagan festival welcoming the arrival of summer. There were variations in many parts of northern Europe until at least the middle of the 19th century − and some may never have died out completely - but what happens on the hill now builds freely on old rituals, and has been doing so since its revival 21 years ago.

At the centre of the ritual is the coming of the May Queen - embodiment of spring and femininity - and her male counterpart the Green Man, the same guy all those pubs are named after. Beginning the night as the Horned God, gnarled and weighed down with the baggage and overgrowth of the old year, at the climax of the night he is ritually stripped of his excess vegetation to be reborn as the new Green Man - representing the shoots of new life that can flourish when the brush is cleared away. The fire plays a similar symbolic role, there to burn away the old and superfluous, leaving what survives cleansed and revitalised. And hopefully a bit warmer.

So far, so traditional, and taken straight out of recorded folklore; but records being patchy, and paganism being a living tradition, large parts of what happens on Calton Hill have been invented specially, and are newly interpreted each year. The resulting hybrid of old and new works as both a powerful ritual and a piece of spectacularly entertaining theatre.

The goddess, the god and the fire begin on the Acropolis, making their way round the hill with an entourage of drummers and White Women, guardians of the goddess. They pass through the Fire Arch, entrance to the Otherworld, and visit each of the four elemental points, waking them as they go. There follows a ribald run-in with the Red Men - nearly-nekkid forces of chaos - who generally gyrate, howl and make impressive human pyramids, before the whole procession moves on to the ritual exfoliation of the Green Man. Throughout all this there's stuff happening in various parts of the hill, particularly the Acropolis and the nearby stage, so following the procession around is not always the best plan.

It’s perhaps surprising, given all of the above, that Beltane attracts such a massively diverse group of volunteers - most of whom wouldn't be caught dead in tie-dye - with differing motivations, but all devoting huge chunks of their lives to making the event happen. A lot of the attraction is the community that's grown up around the festival, the skills you learn and the inhibitions you overcome when you get involved. Previous participants quote similar stories of the amazing natural high felt after the performance has finished, the eclectic mix of people they’ve had the chance to meet and the confidence gained through kicking the ass out of unexpected challenges. Oh, and there’s the legendary all-night after-party too… open to performers only, of course.

It’s the biggest fire festival in the world, it’s cheap as chips, and it’s right on your doorstep.

The BFS are still in desperate need of stewards and torch-bearers, without which the event simply can't happen. It's a minimal time commitment, and you'll have a front-row seat for all the proceedings. Contact for more info.