Zander Bruce, long-time Beltaner, Trustee and current stand-in Chair of the BFS Board of Directors would like to tell you a story…
This year we are encouraging experienced Beltaners to tell their stories, the events that have influenced them, what they have done, how others have touched them and how they in turn have touched others. As the new stand-in Chair for the Society, it perhaps falls to me to lead by example, or at the very least by cautionary tale.
So here I sit, punch drunk on a heady cocktail that is equal parts nostalgia, infamy and whimsy. The events presented herewith are as near to the truth as I can recall or care to make them. They are from my own unique perspective and hazy memory and thus represent the reality that I adhere to.
The very first Beltane I attended as a punter was most likely 1998. It seems like just yesterday to me, though my current line manager was celebrating her 7th birthday that year, no doubt with a Disney Princess theme. As for me, I made my first foray up the Hill and into the otherworldly celebrations of Beltane. I was with flatmates and we soon found ourselves engrossed in the symbolism and pageantry of the Procession before us.
Lost in the drums and throng of the crowd, the night passed in a daze. I recall a burning excitement that here before me was evidence of some community belief in something other than the everyday world, some hidden chthonic revelation of ideas close to my own burgeoning pagan sensibilities. The rather less romantic frantic search for my friends across a dark hilltop that seemed littered with live bodies for most of the night was less special.
The following year two friends in the local pagan group I was part of were involved as Torchbearers and recruited me to join the ranks. Back in those days we would have 2 rehearsals for Torchies, including the walkthrough, before being handed a big burning stick on the night and being sent off round Calton Hill to get through crowds and protect the Procession.
I was petrified – of doing the wrong thing, of going in the wrong direction, of burning horribly. I felt so unprepared and in awe of the other performers, who seemed to have such poise and surety. Like an ugly duckling, I feared they would shun me as soon as they discovered I was not as talented, beautiful, confident and spiritually empowered as they were.
From my vantage point on the edge of the proceedings I could see into the bohemian heart of the internal ritual itself. Here before me was a hedonistic and carefree collection of souls who all seemed to know each other intimately. Who could engage in spectacular performance as well as imbibing homemade herbal brews before disappearing into the back of the Bower, a performers-only space where many would engage in some rather vigorous cuddling after the main ritual was over. There was nobody there telling me I was not allowed to let go and fully experience the decadent existence enjoyed by my peers. It was of course only my own inhibitions holding me back. Nowadays of course there are no such shenanigans back there. My spectacular lack of timing at play once again!
Still, something brought me back again and again. The Torchbearer role was a socially safer one for me, where I was one of many, without the need to learn a performance that would expose me as clumsy and unsure of myself. To guard the edge of the ritual space, to be slightly removed from action and safe from being the centre of others’ attention was comforting for me and a place I would inhabit several times again.
Even on the sidelines there were surprises to entice me in deeper. It was a shock to find that the fellow Torchie I was partnered with in 2000 would become a lover, then I ended up with in the role of defacto GO for Torchbearers in 2001. There was also a sense personally of a golden age in my involvement, one where we stayed up the Hill all night, sharing body heat or warm flasks of herbally-infused beverages and cake. There were also bawdy high jinks to get up to with performers or members of the public alike, without any real sense of responsibility or propriety.
One of the greatest joys and hardest battles was leading Torchies in 2002. That time around I applied to be GO for the group, had a big plan that included having more rehearsals, even a weekend away and some kind of character or look. Being told by a more experienced Beltaner that I was taking on too much with that and shouldn’t do it was heartbreaking. There I was with all this energy and it almost didn’t happen. But I had a plan and I truly felt that there could be a joy and camaraderie to the group that was hitherto unexplored, so I soldiered on.
What an astonishing experience – gathering a large group of people together, spending those weeks forming a deeper kind of group for that role, putting an idea for our Janus themed costumes and masks forward and having it eagerly taken on board. Some friendships formed then still endure to this day.
There was also the moment when the Producer and Production Manager told me that I would have to choose 10 members of the group to be Stewards instead of Torchies, as we needed the numbers. How could I have done that to a quarter of the team? Faced with no other visible recourse, I stood down as official GO and encouraged them to unionise. I sat at the back of the group, mouth shut, while collectively they informed the Producer that they were not splitting and any move to force them to would result in a distinct lack of Torchbearers as well as Stewards. I still took my place in the group that night and was part of a group more determined and empowered than I could ever imagine.
The only thing that taints my memory of that night was the injury sustained by one of the team from a torch brand that had not been soaked enough. She had major burns on her arm at the beginning of the night and kept silent rather than letting anyone know or seeking medical attention. This resulted in her having to get a skin graft after the event. I still feel guilty for not being able to protect one of the group, for not telling them all just one more time to always seek medical help straight away, no matter what.
A break was needed and as Beltane took place elsewhere in 2003 I took time out to come to terms with my lingering guilt from the previous year. Luckily this means I missed out on the bonding experience of the Great Food Poisoning that year. And then for 2004 I reverted to attending as an audience member again, dipping my very nervous toe back in the water.
2005 saw me rejoining Torchies, though not as GO. I also had the pleasure of encouraging a friend from a pagan group I was running to come along and participate. One who is still involved to this day and has led Whites as well as other groups for BFS.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.
Photograph by Stuart Barrett.