The first time I heard of Beltane Fire Festival, whenever that was, I knew I needed to go. It sounded crazy, fun, and most of all, unique.
So when we moved to Edinburgh, Beltane went straight onto my list of things I needed to do this year. The thing is, I had no idea what to expect – I assumed it was like a slightly more subdued version of Up Helly Aa, with lots of fire and a bit of pagan celebration.
I was quite surprised, then, to find out that it was pretty much the opposite – a full-on pagan festival celebrating the earth and seasons, with a bit of fire on the side… but a lot of crazy and fun!
Here’s my guide to the festival and why it should be on your list to experience at least once!
What Is Beltane Fire Festival?
First thing’s first – you’re probably wondering what even is Beltane Fire Festival?! Because I sure as hell got it pretty wrong. I’d heard about the fire processions and the May Queen and the burning of the Green Man, but I had no idea what it was really about, nor anything about the sheer amount of crazy, fun things going on! (You can see why I thought it would have more fire; in fact, Beltane even originates from a Celtic word meaning “bright fire”.)
Beltane is a celebration of the transition from winter to summer, and it’s a traditional Gaelic festival. It is symbolised by the May Queen emerging, walking through the fire arch to cleanse the past and start anew after winter. She then kills the Green Man so that he can be reborn, and that, kids, is how we get summer.
Traditionally, Beltane is known as an Irish celebration, though it’s common in Scottish literature, too. It is thought that it was celebrated until the mid-20th century.
Also known as Cétshamhain (“first of summer”), it marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around or between bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. – Wikipedia
Beltane Fire Festival is a modern take, with dramatic performances, and was started in the ’80s by arts groups in Edinburgh. It takes place every year on April 30th – if you’re visiting Scotland, I think this is a great time to visit ahead of tourist season, too!
How to spend your night at Beltane
We turned up to the main entrance to Calton Hill around 8.30pm. The event officially opens at 8pm, with the procession just before 9.30pm, and by the time we got there, the queue was already pretty long – luckily, we were sent to a secondary queue that had barely got going, so although we had quite a walk up around the back of Calton Hill, it sure beat being stuck in a queue.
It also meant that we came in from the back, and saw lots of the performers as soon as we walked in, which was a great start to the evening.
The first thing we saw was a group of people dressed as highland cows, singing and shaking their little cow bells. Little did we know that wasn’t the weirdest thing we’d see that night, or indeed in the next hour!
After a wander around, passing belly dancers and encountering forest beings (and the kelpie!), we turned our attention to where we should be for the procession.
Here’s the thing – there is so much going on at Beltane that it is impossible to see it all at once.
The main event is the procession, led by the May Queen, and this goes around the entire Calton Hill path – in doing so, turning the wheel of the seasons – but it starts as they walk through the Acropolis, so naturally this is where everyone heads to.
If it’s crowded around there by the time you get there, I recommend going around to the fire arch at the side. This is what we ended up doing, as we weren’t really going to get a good view (or a view at all!) of the big entrance at the Acropolis.
Unlike the Acropolis, hardly anyone was around the arch (which worried me a little!). Fear not – we managed to get front row in front of the arch, and it gave us great views of the Acropolis too, albeit from the back.
And that’s how we stumbled across one of the weirdest parts of the night.
In front of the fire arch was a pile of people sleeping. Very unassuming at first, but the second the drums beat from the Acropolis, everybody slowly came to life – and we soon realised we had front row tickets to see a lot of naked people dancing.
The Reds were chaotic; crawling on the floor and exploring. The story goes that the Whites accompany the May Queen through the procession, protecting her as she restores summer, and when the Whites and Reds join together, balance is restored.
I was glad to have been by the fire arch from the start though, because once the procession at left the Acropolis, the entire crowd up there started heading down to the arch, and the place filled up incredibly quickly.
The May Queen leads her party through the Fire Arch into the Underworld, before visiting the elements of the earth.
It was hard to know where to go next. Should we follow the procession? Head up to the Acropolis to watch the drummers? Or should we take a wander towards the stage, where there would be a lot of goings on throughout the rest of the night? Or was it worth coming back to the fire arch to watch the belly dancers?
We chose the stage, which I think was the right decision. The Acropolis looked like it had a great atmosphere, but we could hear the drummers – and everything that was happening at the Acropolis seemed to move down to the stage anyway. We had the highland cows singing traditional Gaelic songs again; the Reds danced the night away again; and eventually, the drummers joined them, too.
We loved the “cows” – they felt very wholesome, and just before the procession arrived, they all sat down in front of us, mooing at the other performers! They are known as the “Guth nam Bò”, or voice of the cows, and represent a major part of the celebration.
The culmination of the night is when the May Queen leads the procession to the stage, and the performance continues with her acceptance of the reborn Green Man. They kiss; everyone cheers, and summer is officially here!
The two then light the bonfire, and the party goes on until 1am.
There was a lot of anger throughout this year’s event, or perhaps sorrow at the planet’s crisis. The May Queen’s costume was made from recycled materials, with black to symbolise oil spills. The Reds seemed angry at the plight the earth is facing.
I didn’t expect it to be political, but it had a lot of sides of it to interpret.
The whole festival felt anarchic; unlike anything else. I’m really glad we went, because it’s one of the most unique events we’ve ever been to.
What do you need to know?
Beltane Fire Festival takes place on April 30th every year. It has become a pretty big event and requires a bit more organisation than it used to (even if it doesn’t really feel like an organised event half the time!), which means you now have to buy tickets. It was £11 this year, or £15 on the night.
The one rule is to not bring any glass into the festival; any other food and drink is fine. There are vendors around, near the Acropolis, with food and drink for sale, but no alcohol.
It’s totally up to you what you want to see – there are leaflets with the timings of each event, but I think we made the right decision standing by the arch and then moving to the stage. A lot of people were crowded in between the Acropolis and the arch, but I think they would have got mediocre views of both.
If you want to know more, you can find aaalllll the details on Beltane Fire Festival’s website!
Is Beltane Fire Festival something you’d go to? Have you been to any other Celtic festivals?
Thanks to Beltane Fire Festival for providing me with entry to this year’s festival. As always, opinions are entirely my own.