On Saturday, April 30th, around 10,000 visitors crowded atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh for the Beltane Fire Festival 2016. 300 performers entertained the audience for over three hours with aesthetic costumes, acro-yoga, drums, mythology, comedy and, of course, FIRE.
The Beltane Fire Festival is an ancient tradition, with roots in Irish and Celtic lore, to welcome in the new summer season. The current form of the festival was originally held in 1988 by Angus Farquhar, and in 1993 the Beltane Fire Society formed to take on his mantle. The origin of the word Beltane possibly comes from a Celtic word meaning “bright fire,” and the festival’s climax includes lighting a massive bonfire.
8,814 was the figure given to me by the event staff counting at the entrances, but later counts by the Beltane Fire Society found there to be 10,000 in attendance. The crowd was packed even more than it was last year. Reportedly, the last 80 people were turned away when the tickets sold out. So yeah, this event does sell out. You also get a discount when purchasing your ticket in advance. Do so!
Knowing the path that performers follow is important, as only two performances are on raised platforms, and thus the rest can be hard to see with 10,000 people crowding around. Several of those I talked to afterwards who attended were disappointed at being unable to observe the festivities, which is what happens when you don’t know where the procession is going to be. When entering, ensure you get a playbill, or click here to see the one for 2016. Try to get to the points you want to see before the procession arrives to ensure you get a good vantage point. And read here to get the Beltane Fire Society’s own words of wisdom.
I’d also recommend getting to the festival a little before 8 PM, as the line is quite long. Last year it took me nearly two hours in line to get in, but this year was much better organized and I made it through the gates within 10 minutes. However, I heeded my own advice and arrived toward shortly after 8. Atop the hill, you can purchase from all kinds of food and drink trucks, including Union of Genius, the best soup establishment in Edinburgh!
For the past couple years, and hopefully for years to come, the Beltane Fire Festival follows a basic path and schedule. The playbill might say that doors open at 8 PM and the first performance is scheduled to start at 9:15, but the show actually starts approximately at sundown. This year that was 9:55 pm. That’s when the Neid Fire is lit for all the torches, and that can take up to five minutes.
The ceremony starts at the acropolis, where emblems are set on fire to begin the festival. The white May Queen arrives, along with the green man, and they proceed to move in a counter-clockwise path around the hill. Their first stop is the Fire Arch, the doorway from the spirit world into the mortal world. They continue through the Air, Water, Earth and Fire Points, the latter of which includes a rush between the Reds and the Whites. Next they move to the “Red” slope, where the Reds and the Beasties perform. Then at the stage by the Acropolis, the Green Man goes through his death and rebirth, after which the May Queen lights the massive bonfire overlooking the city. Finally, all the performers congregate at the Bower for dancing, merrymaking and more. There, the separation between performers and audience dissolves for the revelry.
After the festival ends (sometime around 1 AM), the performers have their after-party at a private venue. Then they have the after-after-party where they watch the sunrise and welcome in the new season. But that’s members only.
The 300 performers are made up of 20 different groups, each of which practice their respective skills and routines (including night photography classes for the photographers). They only come together for the performance on the final night with no full dress rehearsal beforehand. Yet they pull of a spectacularly coordinated performance throughout the three hours. Last year when I saw them dancing with wild abandon, not mention naked and freezing, I thought perhaps they might have taken some substances, or been a little tipsy. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one, the acro-yoga, fire handling and other moves require the highest level of alertness. Second, this is a community event, and one which upholds the highest standards for all who attend. Therefore, there is no drugs use for the performers in connection with the show, and none are drunk either.
Training for the Beltane Fire Festival begins in February, 10 weeks before the festival. Performers train up to 20 hours a week, depending on the level of difficulty for their routine. Anyone can apply to participate, and many of those that get accepted say it’s one of the most exhilarating and unforgettable experience. Of course, some say it’s unforgettable because of how uncomfortable it is with nothing but a loin-cloth and body-paint to protect against the freezing temperatures, and even rain some years. One year it was even snowing. But when you’re dancing and enjoying yourself, it’s worth it. I certainly plan to apply next year, as long as I’m not traveling at that time.
As it turns out, my first day in Edinburgh was April 30th, 2015. I arrived at 7 AM in the morning, took the Hairy Coo bus tour (where I lost my camera) and then attended Beltane that night (sans photographs). Between the festival, the food, the people and the utter aesthetic beauty of Edinburgh, within 48 hours I realized I was home, and have since set up this city as my home base. Last month, I found out that I’ve actually been a British citizen (by descent) my whole life…and that was the best day of my life! Now, my application for my passport is in the mail, which will allow me to live and work with ease in the EU (at least for a month until the referendum). But at least I can live in Edinburgh, my favorite city in the world, and I plan to attend (or participate in) the Beltane Fire Festival for many years to come.