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Queen for a day. David Cheskin/PA

Did Europe’s leading fire festival do a deal with the Devil to stay alight?

In the heart of Edinburgh on the eve of May Day every year is an ancient Gaelic fire festival called Beltane. Set on the imposing Calton Hill, opposite the headquarters of the Scottish government, this year marks 30 years since the ancient tradition was revived by a group of alternative artists.

It is now one of the most celebrated spectacles in the city’s events calendar, and the biggest of its kind in Europe. It is sometimes attended by more than 10,000 revellers – and it also happens to be 20 years since I first took part as one of the drummers.

Beltane has certainly paid a price for its current status, having professionalised and to some extent sanitised along the way. So was the journey worth it, and can alternative festivals go mainstream and still matter?

Beltane was originally one of four ancient Gaelic festivals that took place throughout Europe to celebrate the passage of the seasons (along with Samhuinn, Imbolc and Lughnasadh). Its origins lie in the celebration of spring and the fertility of land, livestock and people.

The name is thought to originate from a Gaelic-Celtic word meaning “bright/sacred fire”, and a common element of these festivals was the “Neid-Fire”, lit by a spiritual figurehead. From this source, communal bonfires were lit and individual home fires were re-lit as a purifying rite – with “plenty of beer and whisky” swallowed along the way.

These festivals were discouraged in later, God-fearing centuries and were mostly discontinued in the prim Victorian era. In Scotland, only Edinburgh’s Beltane survived into the early 20th century until its beacon was extinguished, too.

A new flame

Then came a group in the late 1980s led by Angus Farquhar, then of industrial band Test Dept. Others included the poet Hamish Henderson and the folklorist Margaret Bennett, then of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, and choreographers Lindsay John and Elizabeth Ranken.

Calton Hill. Wikimedia

While the old Beltane had taken place on Arthur’s Seat, the hills that overlook the city, these organisers chose nearby Calton Hill because permission was easier. It is the site of Edinburgh’s unfinished acropolis the National Monument, which at the time had a negative reputation as a no-go part of the city come dusk. The hill also acts as the symbolic seat of power for the Scottish government, which added to the sense of playful subversion they had in mind.

The original free all-night festival was attended by just a couple of hundred people. It was about protest as celebration, against the black and white politics of 1980s Britain. It overlapped with the wider British free festival scene that had led to the era of Stonehenge as contested site, later culminating in acid house raves, road protests and the controversial Criminal Justice Act 1994.

The core has always been a procession of the May Queen, the death and rebirth of the Green Man, and the lighting of a bonfire, all set to the beating of drums, fire and acrobatics. Among the additional characters are the Reds, who embody the carnivalesque, the fools who become kings for a night, and the need in all of us to let loose and go wild.

Patrick Down, CC BY-SA

I joined as one of the Beastie Drummers, who accompany the Reds, having been recruited through a djembe drumming class at Edinburgh University. It was a liberating experience, both primal and modern, all dancing and chanting to the beat of the drums. It would fragment into smaller hillside gatherings until dawn, as boundaries blurred with the audience and we all celebrated a sense of belonging to something forgotten

Changing times

The festival has overcome numerous hurdles over the years – the first when Angus Farquhar stepped down in 1992 and the Beltane Fire Society was formed. The new board still had to contend with a darker undercurrent linked to the location and the free nature of the festival, relying on year-round fundraising and bucket donations on the night.

“There were a lot of rougher people when it was free,” says one organiser. “[There was a] violent undertone which never manifested too often but it was there.” The police presence steadily grew and negotiations with the city council became increasingly fraught amid perceived fears about drug dealing, fights and health and safety regulations.

Hello 2001. Ben Curtis/PA

In 2002, I took part in what was to be my final Beltane drumming performance before leaving Edinburgh to work abroad for a time. It also turned out to be the end of the first era since the revival. The festival was forced to cancel in 2003, reduced to a low-key private ritual elsewhere. In the post-9/11 world, health and safety costs had gone through the roof and bucket donations were no longer adequate.

It returned the following year with low-cost ticketing and a 1am curfew. This removed the minority undercurrent but also “that sense of controlled anarchic freedom”, according to a former organiser. Some more activist supporters felt the spirit had gone, though the performance certainly retained that sense of temporary freedom, transgression from convention and wild abandon.

There was another milestone in 2008 when the Beltane Fire Society was granted charitable status. It now has a mutually respectful relationship with the council and works hard to encourage audience/performer engagement through workshops and additional groups and characters.

A rite of passage

The modern Beltane has always been a rite of passage. It relies heavily on students and young people from around the world, and the audience too is nearly 80% first-time attenders with most resident but not born in Scotland. This has always meant that new performers and organisers have been able to rejuvenate the society’s vision along the way.

Since my Beltane days, I have been through a fair few subsequent rites of passage of my own, one of which will accompany me to my first family-friendly Beltane community open day this weekend. I’ve also secured tickets to attend the main event this year with the school friend I originally signed up with 20 years ago.

The broader political climate too has come full circle for this 30th Beltane, with the Tories dominant and even threatening a comeback in Scotland. The festival might have had to compromise to be embraced by the Edinburgh establishment, but you can expect this year’s celebration to include nods to recent global events and the society’s activist roots. In an era that has forgotten so much of its ancient traditions, better a May Day cup that’s mostly full than nothing left at all.

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