Every year on April 30, the Beltane Fire Society descend upon Edinburgh's Calton Hill to re-enact the ancient Gaelic ceremony of Beltane, signalling the death of winter and the beginning of spring. It's a breathtaking spectacle of music, theatrics, dance, body paint, pyrotechnics and smattering of nudity - if you don't believe us, check out the picture gallery capturing some of Beltane's highlights over the past seven years.
17 SCORCHING IMAGES
Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the "symbolic use of fire". There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The aos sí (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them. Most scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. Beltaine was a "spring time festival of optimism" during which "fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun".
THIS YEAR'S FESTIVAL
The current Beltane was started in 1988 by a small group of enthusiasts including Angus Farquhar of the musical collectiveTest Dept., choreographer Lindsay John, and dancers from Laban, as well as academics from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The event was intended as a celebration of traditional rituals as a local manifestation of an international spirit. Originally intended to take place on Arthur's Seat, the home of earlier Edinburgh Beltane celebrations, for practical reasons the location was moved to Calton Hill. Choreography, iconography and performance were moulded by the originators' research into historical accounts of Beltane and their own influences (e.g. Test Department's drumming, Trinidadian carnival, and ritual dance and performance).
The Beltane Fire Society, a registered charity which runs the festival, is managed by a democratically elected voluntary committee, and all the performers are volunteers who either join by word of mouth or by attending one of the advertised open meetings held early in the year. Senior performers and artists in the society help others through workshops with aspects of event production, prop construction, character performance techniques, team building, percussion skills and the health and safety considerations involved. The society has also held fundraising art and music events and has held a 'mini-Beltane' at a local AIDS Hospice, Milestone House.
As a community event, each year the performance has evolved as new people bring their own influences and directions. The core narrative remains by and large the same though additional elements have been added over time for theatrical, ritual, and practical reasons. Originally an event with a core of a dozen performers and a few hundred audience, the event has grown to several hundred performers and over ten thousand audience. Key characters within the performance are maintained, though reinterpreted by their performers, and additional participants incorporated each year.
Originally, the festival was free and only lightly stewarded, however, as the event has grown in popularity, due to the capacity of the hill, funding requirements, andEdinburgh Council requests, the festival has in recent years moved to being a ticketed event.