Edinburgh's Beltane Fire Festival was created in its current form in 1988, the product of a small group of enthusiasts including the musical collective Test Department, with academic support from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
From small and obscure beginnings the festival's reputation spread. Thus the Beltane Fire Society was formed to manage the logistics of the growing event and to increase public awareness of Scottish traditional seasonal festivals.
The event has gained international renown and at its largest attracted 15,000 spectators to Calton Hill. Licensing restrictions led to a limit of 12,000 tickets.
With over 300 voluntary collaborators and performers involved, many new to public performance, a major role of the Society has been to provide skill-sharing workshops in promenade performance and character work, fire performance, costume and prop making, and music and percussion. The Society also stages an event at Samhuinn, the seasonal opposite to Beltane, in Parliament Square (on Edinburgh's Royal Mile) on the night of Oct 31st. BFS has also held innumerable fundraising art and music events.
The Beltane Fire Society is managed by a voluntary committee, and all the performers are volunteers. All the costs of the event have previously been covered by fundraising events such as post-festival clubs, and voluntary donations. Performers also commit large amounts of time and money into producing their costumes, and props. The rising cost of producing such a large and spectacular event (now over £30,000) has led to ticketing being necessary to cover some of the costs (Beltane was free for 15 years, Samhuinn is still free).
However, as Beltane presently receives no public funding or grants, and ticketing does not support the event completely, the Society is still seeking donations, putting on clubs and pursuing other forms of fundraising to allow it to continue with this annual event.
Beltane's Roots in the Community
Historically, the Beltane festival was the primary focus of a community's year. Before the Romans divided the seasons into a calendar of 12 months, the Celtic year was marked by four Quarter Days: Beltane, Lughnasadh (‘Luna-sa'), Samhuinn (‘Sa-wain') and Imbolc.
Of these, Beltane was the most frequently and significantly celebrated. The festivals did not occur on fixed dates but were marked by significant stages in the pastoral season.
Beltane, for instance, would usually be held on the full moon. It was marked by the flowering of hawthorn trees and was the time when it was suitable to drive ones cattle to highland pastures for the summer. Thus the festival was one of the main occasions when the whole community was united in a single task to ensure the good fortune of themselves and their herds for the coming season. It would be a time when new liaisons were forged and the ground set for marriages in the autumn, further forging links within and between communities.
In its contemporary setting the festival still has the potential to bind together a community in the common goal of its own good fortune. The night itself is not widely advertised and although its reputation is spreading far and wide, it remains primarily a festival for the local people of Edinburgh to enjoy.
This sets it apart from the two other major festival events in Edinburgh: the Edinburgh Festival and Hogmanay, both of which are populated largely by visitors to the city. Beltane costs very little to attend, making it accessible to the entire community. The Beltane Fire Society also invites those with disabilities who might wish to attend to get in contact in advance as they can be provided with assistance and advice on how best to experience the festival safely and enjoyably.
The process of developing the events each year has also proven to be a valuable catalyst for community development. All the performers are voluntary, and many are previously inexperienced in performance skills. They either join by word of mouth or by attending one of the advertised open meetings held early in the year.
Under the guidance of professional performers and community artists, the volunteers are trained in the technical aspects of event production, prop construction, in-character performance techniques, team-building, percussion skills and the safety considerations of outdoor events.
Many of the participants have since gone on to develop careers in community education and performance art as a result of their experiences with Beltane. In previous years a ‘mini-Beltane' has been held at a local AIDS Hospice, Milestone House, involving performers, in-patients, families and the hospice staff in the festival.
Beltane is a unique opportunity in today's fragmented Society for the whole community of Edinburgh to join in a celebration of the country's ancient heritage. Everyone, be they spectator or performer approaches the event from a different direction and leaves with a different perception of what it meant, but most agree that it serves a vital role in maintenance of Scotland's cultural identity.