SUMMER will officially begin on Saturday, and thousands of revellers will join costumed performers for the annual Beltane Fire Festival.

A modern event with ancient roots, the festival will return to Calton Hill, in Edinburgh, to “celebrate the death of winter and the birth of summer by casting off the darkness and celebrating the light” on what organisers call “one of the most magical nights of the year”.

This year, the Beltane Fire Society, the community arts performance charity behind the spectacle, is preparing to welcome bumper crowds.


A FESTIVAL that celebrates birth and rebirth, Beltane has experienced its own resurrection.

An important date on the ancient Celtic calendar, Beltane’s fires burned brightly for centuries across Scotland, but the flames died out in the 19th century.

Blazes ceased in Helmsdale, Sutherland, in 1820, with Fife following soon after and northern Shetland cancelling the party by the 1870s.

Beacons had been lit on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh for longer than living memory, but the capital also abandoned the tradition by the start of the 20th century.

However, the torches were ablaze once again by the late 1980s thanks to Angus Farquhar, now of arts organisation NVA, who brought Beltane back to recapture a sense of connection to nature and improve the spirit of the community.

Since then the festival, which includes the procession of the May Queen, the death and rebirth of Green Man and the lighting of the bonfire, has continued to evolve and grow.


ANYONE and everyone – and this year crowds could be as large as 10,000, according to organisers.

Rob May, who has been involved with the festival for

10 years, says it has grown from something very intimate to a date with international appeal.

“Before 2004 there were a lot of visitors from within Edinburgh. That was before it was a ticket event,” he said. “We have seen ourselves reach out further and now people come from all over the world to climb that hill and celebrate with us.”

May, who is a park ranger for Historic Environment Scotland by day, has previously played the Green Man and will this year walk before the May Queen as one of the “blues”.

His role involves protecting the narrative and with it the integrity of the ritual. “If one year we decided to chuck it out and put a Marvel superhero on the hill, then we would lose that connection to all that love and passion that has been poured in over the years by all the people involved,” he said.

“When people turn up to watch they have the expectation that they are celebrating this thing with us – we expect to see the Green Man dance in his pants, we expect that death and rebirth sequence.

“It is the spirit of what we have come to need, to know that [summer] has started.”


A COLOURFUL, dazzling and noisy experience, Beltane is known for the extravagance of its performers and their striking costumes, which involve head-to-toe body paint and, in some cases, not much more.

For May, 35, it has many important moments, but one gets him every time. “When the need-fire is lit at the National Monument and all others are extinguished, that is one of the few rituals we know we have dragged out of the Iron Age into modern times.

“All fires in the community would be extinguished and the need-fire would be lit and from that all members of the community would light their own torch and take it back to their own hearth, and by that would all be connected.

“It’s a really, really special moment. Just after that the first drum beats kick in. There’s something that stirs inside and it’s impossible not to be moved by it. Three hours later you come out of this trance-like state and think, ‘What have

I done for the last couple of hours?’”


THE festival begins at 8pm on Saturday, ending at 1.30am, and all attendees must have tickets, which are available from tickets-scotland.com.

Originally a free party, organisers were forced to formalise arrangements to comply with health and safety regulations as crowds grew with its reputation. There is an emphasis on producing an inclusive performance rather than delivering a profit, and May says the result helps link the city back to the past.

“There were Iron Age communities living on the back of Salisbury Crags,” he said, “and there are a few Iron Age hill forts around. People were celebrating this festival up on the hill. I’m fascinated by that history.

“There is a definite connection in facilitating a sharing of a visceral experience that calls to us through the ages to the modern day.”