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When the sun has set over the Firth of Forth and darkness has descended upon Calton Hill, the excitement is palpable. Torches blaze – the fire crackling in the cold evening air. Performers amble about the hill in full costume, covered in body paint and intricately crafted dress to reflect their roles as elements and forces of nature.
Groups of people in red body paint, others in blue, some with feathers and some with ornate headdress. These performers, members of the Beltane Fire Society, assemble and the events begin. It’s time to officially welcome summer to Scotland in line with the traditional Celtic way.
It’s time for the Beltane Fire Festival.
Edinburgh is a Festival City
The Scottish capital city of Edinburgh is known as the Festival City. The month of August brings five simultaneous festivals to the Scottish capital, attracting thousands of performers and artists to entertain the tens of thousands of visitors.
Smaller festivals throughout the year attract more specific groups: the Jazz Festival, the Science Festival, the International Film Festival. At New Year’s Eve (called Hogmanay in Scotland) the city is alive with one of the biggest celebrations on Earth.
But it is this celebration to welcome summer, the Beltane Fire Festival, that offers an intimate glimpse into the unique history of this ancient land. It’s the Beltane Fire Festival that highlights the past within the present, enticing today’s local youth to keep ancient traditions alive.
Keeping the past alive in Scotland is easy enough. Ancient ruins and relics of eras gone by dot the rugged landscape throughout the country. But evolving ancient rituals into the modern era can prove to be a challenge.
The Beltane Fire Society has been taking on and overcoming this challenge for decades. “Our festival is a living, dynamic reinterpretation and modernisation of an ancient Iron Age Celtic ritual and is the largest of its kind,” explains the society website. “It is important to note that the purpose of our festival is not to recreate ancient practices but to continue in the spirit of our ancient forebears and create our own connection to the cycles of nature.”
This recreation and adaptation brings new life to Edinburgh every April. It’s a favorite event among locals, more so than tourists. But whatever your role in the city, be sure to bear witness to the birth of summer in a truly Scottish way.
Read why I think expats make the best tourists
Attend the Beltane Fire Festival
Head to Calton Hill, just up the road from Waverley train station, before sunset if the weather is favorable enough. You’ll enjoy one of the best sunset views in Edinburgh from here facing the Firth of Forth and the Kingdom of Fife beyond.
Yes, it’s still called the Kingdom of Fife. A reminder of the grip the past still holds on the present here in Scotland.
Before the official events kick off later in the evening, you’ll have ample opportunity to interact with performers and volunteers of the Beltane Fire Society.
These volunteers spend countless hours preparing for this annual event, including making their own costumes and rehearsing the official events for two months in advance.
It’s important to understand that the Beltane Fire Festival is not a sedentary, formal theatrical show. Rather, the procession of events will take place at various designated spots around Calton Hill. There are no seats at all – although disability access is provided.
The best way to enjoy the Beltane Fire Festival is to select a spot up front at one of the first designated event locations and wait until the procession arrives. Maps are provided upon entry to the Hill so you know the path of the procession.
If you follow along with the events from spot to spot, you’ll more than likely end up at the back of a crowd through which you cannot see. Instead, choose to stake out a spot early and wait.
Patience is a virtue – especially since you’re welcoming summer to Scotland in April. Don’t expect summer temperatures to ever actually arrive here. But perhaps the sun might come out in August!
Fire Marks the Beginning of Winter’s End
The official events begin at the National Monument, sometimes referred to as Edinburgh’s Disgrace since the funds ran out shortly after starting construction.
This architectural flop is now iconic in the city and serves as a base for several important events. The Beltane Fire Society refers to it more endearingly as the Acropolis, for the Greek monument upon which its design was based.
The Beltane Fire Festival is kicked off when the fire blazes through the specially crafted emblems hanging on the Acropolis. The Green Man and the May Queen emerge to signify the end of winter and the beginning of summer, starting the procession to complete this transition.
The procession leaves the Acropolis and proceeds along the paved paths of Calton Hill. The beating drums guide the way, as the May Queen and the Green Man encounter various groups en route.
These groups represent other forces of nature that hinder or help summer to flourish. Epic battles and demonstrations of strength ensue as the May Queen and the Green Man make their way around the hill.
Understanding the Deeper Meaning
While the event is visually spectacular, don’t worry if you don’t quite understand everything that’s happening around you. The traditions are ancient and performers interpret their own roles within those traditions. There is so much to take in and every year varies in its specifics.
Just be part of the event and enjoy the spectacle and celebratory nature of it all.
While the main events happen at designated points, other performances and demonstrations are ongoing elsewhere around Calton Hill. The celebratory festival can overwhelm the senses, with something new and intriguing happening at every turn.
As the Beltane Fire Society explains, “The important point to note when thinking about our own festival is the joy and the revelry that is fostered in the ritual. It is about casting off the darkness and celebrating the light. It is a time for celebrating fertility, both in the context of our biological functions as well as our own creative energies, the fertility of our creative community.”
The evening culminates with the May Queen and the Green Man lighting a bonfire to signify the beginning of summer.
Throughout the entire performance, spectators are practically part of the event. While perhaps not covered in body paint, the line between performer and spectator is blurred throughout the celebration.
Tips for Attending the Beltane Fire Festival
If you want to witness this extraordinary annual event, you can purchase tickets in advance via the link on the Beltane website. Edinburgh is well versed in festival events, so you can trust that the process will be seamless.
Even if you end up buying tickets at the gate, rest assured that the line will move quickly with efficient staff and systems in place. But purchase tickets at the gate at your own risk – the event regularly sells out.
The event rarely ever starts on time, so don’t be tapping your foot at 9:01pm while everyone around you continues to mingle about. Partake in the whole atmosphere and enjoy the moment, regardless of the time on your watch.
Stay as long as you want to see as much of the procession as interests you. The celebratory event will continue into the early morning hours, with the later hours becoming decidedly family-unfriendly.
As this is Scotland, prepare for cold temperatures and be sure to bundle up. The best advice anyone from Edinburgh could offer: bring a flask (or two) full of something hot! Mulled wine is a favorite, while the water of life is obviously standard.
There are safety personnel all around Calton Hill, as well as bathroom facilities and snack stands. No glass is permitted inside the gates. And, please, refrain from using flash photography throughout the celebration as it distracts performers and spectators alike.
I also recommend you stay in Edinburgh since the event can run quite late. You’ll have to leave early if you’re staying outside the city. Find a convenient spot nearby:
Want to learn more?
- Learn about Samhuinn Fire Festival, the counter celebration to Beltane
- Get more insight into the history of this celebration from the Beltane Fire Society
- Additional background on Beltane and the Celts
- The Beltane Fire Society website for all details on the annual celebration
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