Heritage and Culture

The Beltane Fire Festival

By Sophie

On the 30th April, the annual Beltane Fire Festival will take place. Dancers with fire in their hands and lashings of paint on their bodies, will take the annual journey, up Calton Hill in Edinburgh, to celebrate the beginning of the summer season.

A homage to the ancient pagan tradition, the unique festival's elemental dancing and dazzling fire displays are the entertainment for a crowd of over 12,000 attendees. Drawing on literary, historical and mythological influences, stories are told through dance and drama. Once returning to the dancing, a bonfire is lit and the evening concludes with a mass celebration of the death of Spring and the birth of the Summer season.

Where did it all begin?

LA Bealltainn in Gaelic, or Beltane, is the Gaelic May Day Festival. It was commonly held on the 1st of May, or around half way through the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. One if the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, it marked the beginning of summer. This would signal a time for the cattle to be driven out to the summer pastures and rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, ad to encourage growth.

Bonfires were lit and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the fire, or between two bonfires, sometimes leaping over the flames or embers. The bonfire was deemed as a special, sacred fire, which would later be used to light all the household fires in the settlement. The celebrations would also be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the Asos Si (a category of supernatural beings and spirits that are said to walk among the living). The doors, windows, byres and cattle would be decorated with yellow May flowers, as a representation of the bonfire.

The Modern Beltane...

In 1988, a small group of enthusiasts from various musical and academic backgrounds held the first commercialised Beltane fire festival. The event was intended to celebrate traditional rituals. Orginally located on Arthur's Seat, where previous Beltane festivals had occurred, the festival was moved to Calton Hill for prectical reasons. The originators researched historical accounts of Beltane and combined them with their own influences from choreography, iconography and performance.

The Beltane Festival is a community event and each year the performance has evolved as new people bring their own influences and directions. There is a core narrative that remains the same, though additional elements have been added over time for theatrical, ritual and practical reasons.

If you're in Edinburgh this Sunday, then get yourself along to the Beltane Fire Festival for a truly unique experience!