As daylight commutes, lunch breaks al-fresco and post-work Pimms make a welcome return, we’ve finally made it through winter. But while we’re dusting off our sandals down south, in the harsher Scottish climes where winters are frequently a feat of endurance, spring is celebrated with far more pomp and ceremony. Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival is a mystical night of Pagan pageantry crammed with stirring twilight creatures, fire dancers, flame throwers and giant, glowing toadstools.
Meaning “bright fire”, the Gaelic Beltane Festival was originally celebrated in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man to mark the passing of the seasons and the longed-for arrival of summer. The highlight of the festival would be the ceremonial lighting of the Beltane fires on the 1st May, ignited to breathe new life and warmth into the winter-ravaged humans and livestock.
Viewed as anti-Christian for many years, it wasn’t until 1998 that a group of volunteers decided to raise the festival from its Pagan ashes. From humble beginnings of just a few hundred spectators, the festival is now a ticketed event attracting tens of thousands of visitors.
At sunset on the 30th April each year, the action kicks off at the National Monument on Calton Hill as the beats of forty drums thrum through the cobbled streets. Led by the majestic May Queen and her leafy side-kick the Green Man, a procession of flame throwers, fire dancers and night creatures wind their way down the hill. Once at the bottom, a dramatic stage performance takes place before the lighting of the bonfire bids farewell to winter and the the birth of summer.
After the bonfire, the procession heads to the Bower where plentiful hospitality is on offer and festive dances are play out into the wee, small hours. New additions for 2015 include Spark – an interactive sound and light show and a faerie garden sprouting giant glowing toadstools and mushrooms created from candle wax unearthed in Edinburgh’s underground caves.
If you’ve already done the Edinburgh Festival, the Beltane Fire Festival is a great excuse to return to the city and see it from a mystical new perspective. but you may want to think twice about packing sandals.
The Beltane Fire Festival 2017 takes place on the 30 April. 2017
For tickets, visit the official Beltane website. Advance booking recommended.