08 May 2009

Beltane Fire Festival 2009

Without doubt one of the weirdest and spectacular festivals I have written about or attended is the Beltane Fire Festival held on Calton Hill, Edinburgh on the 30th April every year.

This ancient pagan fire festival was reignited in 1988 by the Beltane Fire Society but the actual ritual dates back centuries. Beltane is part of the Celtic quarter-day festivals of Samhuinn, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Actually, before I arrived I didn’t have a clue what this festival was about except that it was a combination of a celebration of the arrival of summer and a fertility festival. I had never even heard of this festival but promises of naked bodies, alcohol and music was enough to spark my interest.

I was at the site from around mid-day watching small groups of performers rehearse at the National Monument and the surrounding hills. Judging by the early rehearsals I wasn’t holding my breath for anything spectacular, although the breath-taking views over Edinburgh from Calton Hill were worth the visit alone. This festival draws people from all over the world, and the French and Italian visitors were here at an early stage, sampling and giving their opinions on the gourmet espresso coffee that friends of mine were selling onsite. The Euro coffee lovers gave the mind-blowing, caffeine loaded triple espressos the thumbs up after downing them rapidly before taking a quick sprint around the hill.

As the evening drew in the attendees started to arrive, and by 9.30pm the hill was packed with around 11,000 spectators. Unknown to me, months of preparation had gone into this festival including the security aspects. The police were in attendance, although as far as I could see there was no trouble throughout the evening. I did see a few people being taken into the back of an ambulance, and a few revellers being ejected from trees that had signs stating, “Do not climb the trees”. A friend did see one reveller lying on the grass, his leg facing the opposite direction than nature intended; all part of the festival fun though.

No alcohol was sold on site although attendees could bring their own as long as it was contained in plastic bottles. There was a chill-out tent for those who had taken the herbal refreshments a bit too far. Free condoms could also be taken advantage of; this was a fertility festival after all.

By 9.30pm Calton Hill was in total darkness and suddenly the sound of drums began beating out through the night air, this drew the majority of the crowd over to the Monument and the festival had begun. The Neid Fire was ignited, and the May Queen, the Green Man, the Blue Men and the White Women proceeded around the hill to the sound of the drums. It seemed like a combination of the tribal chanting for Kong to arrive mixed with the Wicker Man fire burning spectacle, and it was an amazing sight to behold. The chaotic Red Men jumped around the hill and through the crowd scaring everyone and performing some amazing acrobatic feats and stunts.

There is of course a set story to the spectacle along the lines of death, rebirth and the arrival of summer. The three hours of music, dancing, fire spectacles and acrobatic feats are impressive to witness, and the performers were altogether completely professional. The event boasted an electrifying Mardi Gras carnival atmosphere complete with painted semi-naked bodies, energetic dancing, tribal music and a celebration of the summer to come.

Beltane Fire Festival should be one of the highlights of the year on any festival lover’s calendar, and at only £7 per head it is definitely better value than most of the more well known UK festivals. More information can be found at www.beltane.org

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