Neil James Rhind, Beltaner and writer of wonderful words, shares this thoughts on the extended family/community/village that is BFS…
As is so often the case with things worth saying, this piece is really just a footnote to Kurt Vonnegut. In a long and productive career, where he kept coming back in speeches and essays to topics that exercised him – humanity, stories, jazz, genocide – one of the topics he had a lot to say on was that of extended family. Or perhaps he didn’t have a lot to say. Just a little, said again and again. In a nutshell, he repeatedly informed us, extended families are good. Essential, in fact, to our mental or spiritual wellbeing. The sense of isolation, of rootlessness, of uncomfortable ennui which marks the quietly desperate lives of modern folks is the result of our families being too small. Many divorces, Vonnegut suggests, are the result of people marrying too few new family members. Generally, one. They don’t have a new network of in-laws to talk with, to joke to, to feel for. To make up for the old network of by-births to talk with, joke to and feel for they didn’t have themselves. The only have another lonely person, and that isn’t enough.
One of the ways Vonnegut makes his approach to the topic is to note just how lucky those people are who still have such families. Generally, these fortunates are born outwith the mainstream of Vonnegut’s – i.e. American – society. Born into a conservative, tribalist, traditionalist culture that clings on to its outmoded identity in the face of modernity. Like the Ibo of Nigeria. Or the Navajo. Or the Kennedys. But all hope is not lost for the poor souls unlucky enough to be born outside the lower rungs of the 99% or the top rung of the 1%. We may not have a web of family waiting for us when we first, screaming, open our blurry new eyes, but a lack of readymade blood-and-marriage kinsfolk can be overcome. Like German soldiers of World War I roasting acorns when the coffee supply runs out, at a push an ersatz family will do. That, Vonnegut realised one day, is the true worth of attending a venerable and ancient University. Not for the quality of the education you receive, nor the kudos getting a degree from such an institution conveys. Not even the automatic job opportunities such kudos can be traded for, which I can assure you, sadly, don’t exist. No, the real benefit of attending a great university is the chance to gain ” lifelong membership in a respected artificial extended family.” And if your brains, background or budget stand in the way of qualifying to join one of those families, less respectable artificial kin groups will do the job just as well. That’s why Vonnegut the lifelong atheist recommended that people join churches, and why he praised belonging to Alcoholics Anonymous even if you weren’t an alcoholic. If the tastes of the modern orphan go more to leathers than parchment, he tells us, “Get yourself a Harley and join the Hell’s Angels instead.”
If you live in Edinburgh, and have a leather allergy, you can always join the Beltane Fire Society. For that matter, you don’t have to live in Edinburgh; There are members who commute absurdly long distances twice-weekly just to take make rehearsals. Nor do you need to swear off leathers. We do have a genuine biker among us, whose refusal to dissolve in the formless hug of a cuddle puddle and regular complaints about effing hippies are signs of affection, really. We also have a fair few members who just…like leather. To quote two Beltaners at a vintage clothing stall last weekend : “oooh, look at that full-length leather kilt!” / “you mean the skirt?”. But the fact remains that if, for whatever reason, beer-filled bearded bikers don’t float your boat – and few hogs are actually seaworthy – the Beltane Fire Society makes a fine alternative to the Hell’s Angels. And to Alcoholics Anonymous, Freemasonry, Alumni societies or the church of your choice. It’s almost as if it were designed as an extended family replacement.
It certainly isn’t designed for its stated purpose.
Oh, you don’t know what that is?
Sorry about that. You know how it is, you join a charismatic cult, it takes over your life, and you start to assume everyone else knows all about it too. As a registered charity, there is an official set of mission statements for the Beltane Fire Society. Something about a community arts festival, and sharing skills in the community, and educating the public about the Celtic festivals of the Scottish Quarter Days. But we can safely ignore those, that’s just paperwork. And a good thing too, since there are fine members in good standing who don’t know how to pronounce one of the Quarter Days properly. The important point to draw from the official aims of the Society is that it exists to stage two seasonal Ritual Dramas for the amusement and edification of the public. The big one, with a few hundred performers and a few thousand audience members – or, since charismatic cults and other fake families grow their own languages, “Witnesses” – takes place up a hill in Edinburgh at the last sunset before May. An ancient and mysterious rite from the obscure and savage past – the late nineteen eighties – the annual Beltane performance predates BFS, and, as it grew from tiny beginnings called the society into being to meet the legal and logistical demands of getting bigger. The smaller, Samhuinn performance, a more urban – and clothed – torchlit procession in October was then called up in turn since, having made the society, its members realised they were bored going ten months of the year without a festival to look forward to.
If staging these two performances is the point of the society, however, they go about it in a highly impractical way. Some months before the event, members are invited to tell the society about what things they’d like to do, and help others do, on the night itself. Presuming these things aren’t going to endangers too many innocent lives in fiery explosions, they get the go ahead to do them. Then, two months before the performance, they gather around them a band of interested volunteers and embark on an intensive schedule of rehearsals, exercises – physical and “spiritual” – costume making, and endless name games and variations on the theme of tig. For no discernible reason – other than “tradition” or “fun” – each group goes away for a weekend camping, adding a whole layer of faff and planning that’s merely an adjunct to the actual event organisers are already stressing over by this point. Occasionally, a skilled and competent professional will be tolerated in an organisational role. Tolerated, and perhaps even paid. Nonetheless, the most welcome and most valuable of this kind are those who embrace the less than orthodox aspects of the society’s habits. The sort who rise to unsteady feet on Arthur’s Seat at seven in the morning and weave their way through heaps of drunken Beltaners shouting “I Am Going To The De-Rig!” A few years ago there was a professional whose principled regard lasted a couple of weeks before crumbling in the face of Hippies and Their Herding. They quit well before the performance. No one really noticed. If quickly and easily staging two one-off theatrical pieces was the principal reason for the Beltane Fire Society, there’s be better ways to go about it. And, since we’re not idiots, we would go about them.
So what is the point of the Beltane Fire Society?
Well, staging the two festivals is certainly in there somewhere. Not as polished theatrical pieces for the edification of the audience, since they can hardly see a fragment of the night and aren’t quite sure what they’re seeing in any case. We don’t do it for the audience, we do it for ourselves. When approaching the technical crew to demand that “we’ll walk over a lake of molten fire on a bridge made of hot coals and glass”, having anyone there to see it done is almost beside the point. To out-ESir-dmund-Hillary Sir Edmund Hillary, we do it because it’s not there…yet. And the technical crew listen because, as reluctant as they are to admit it, they like people making insane demands of them. There’s an adrenaline thrill to spending five minutes sketching a lake of flame on the back of an envelope which presumably makes up for having to patiently explain that maybe they could rig up something that looks like a lava bridge, but is less likely to kill. It may even be up there with the simple joys of eating flapjacks and drinking tea, the less flammable vices of Tech. For members of the drum crews, the reason is very simple: people let them hit drums. Others are flagrant exhibitionists, or fervent sculptors, or non-euphemistic seamstresses, or somehow “spiritual”. But even then, the emphasis is often somewhere other than the event itself. A transformative ritual experience isn’t just for Beltane, it’s for a Facebook Profile picture too.
As well as the rehearsal period, there’s the Afters too: the after part, the after after party, the after after after party – a pint or three in the Dagda – the after after after after party, which is a picnic on the Meadows. By ancient and accustomed tradition (which means “I heard someone say three years ago that”) any number of afters can be added on to new events for weeks after Beltane, but not beyond the after after to the power of n party on Tyninghme beach, sometime in May. Equally by tradition, the date for the Tyninghame beach party is set by mysterious communication from the spirits. Namely whatever spirits have been drunk by the first person to stand up in the Dagda and shout “we are having a beach party on the weekend of whatever date!” with sufficient conviction to make this true. Even after this high tide mark, however, the Beltane going on keep going on. Ingrained habit and shared interests mean that other events, from Edinburgh’s Pride march to the Knockengorrach World Ceilidh are Beltane events without the inconvenience of having to organise them ourselves. We just turn up in sufficient numbers to mark them with our scent. In case anyone suspected that the point of rehearsals were to prepare people for the performance, Exhibit A for the prosecution is the fact that, quite often, a group will keep holding rehearsals well into the Summer….
To quote a wiser soul than myself, “There are as many reasons for doing Beltane as there are people who do it.” To quote a more foolish soul than myself – to quote myself, in fact, when I was drunk – “I do Beltane because I cannot afford proper therapy.” Short of conducting a probing society wide census, listing the true purpose(s) of Beltane is an impossible task. But I would argue here that, whatever other uses the Beltane multitool may be put to, one of its most important fold-out blades is a knife for working stones out from the hooves of the soul. The same purpose that Kurt Vonnegut suggests is carried out by churches, universities and so on. Beltane exists to give people a new extended family, and, in those terms, it is very well designed indeed.
To reiterate an important point, and hopefully make some things clearer: this is not a family in the nuclear sense, but Vonnegut’s sense. And Vonnegut’s sense isn’t really a family either, strictly speaking. If Beltane fire society were a family in the nuclear sense, it would mean basically living with a small group of people in close quarters, spending all your time with them and bickering constantly about whose turn it is to do the chores. That stage only lasts for about a month, thankfully. But there’s room for confusion in Vonnegut’s use of the word “family”. What he seems to hark back to isn’t, strictly speaking, a family set up, extended or otherwise. What Vonnegut is calling for is less like a family and more like a Village. And an idyllic, warm-beer-for-the-vicar-cycling-over-the-green village at that. What he is suggesting we lack, and what Beltane and its volunteers have in abundance is that dread buzz-word, “community”.
In a village you may not know everyone, but you know a lot of people, and know of the rest. Those you don’t know, someone you know knows. Beltane is wonderfully constructed to developing that situation. Each year there are about three hundred performers, stewards and suchlike volunteers. Around this core, there is the “broader community”. People who have performed before, and may well perform again, but for the moment keep their oar in at a distance by turning up to the Afterparty , Tyninghame and other extra-curricular socials. Or, perhaps, by buying an audience ticket to the performance, dressing as a Faery Washerwoman, and leaping out from the chip van to attack my group with a broom. Since many of the group had never been involved in Beltane before, they had no idea who this rogue madwoman was, and were suitably terrified and confused. She seemed satisfied with that outcome. The Beltane community therefore has hundreds of potential members, which is technically more people than any of us can know, in any meaningful sense. Or at least that’s the contention of Robin Dunbar, some sort of -ologist whose research has given the world the Dunbar Number, the maximum number of people that we can comfortably maintain a stable relationship with. The human mind, Dunbar reasons, was developed over a two hundred thousand year period when the people you knew was pretty much limited to the group you lived and travelled with. While we were hunting and gathering, the chances of meeting anyone else were slim, and if you did meet them you would probably just skirt round them and keep going. There was a lot of land a few people. As a result, our hardware is configured to deal with a maximum of three hundred relationships of any depth and duration. Presuming the average Beltaner still has some friends and family not yet inducted into the community – a bold suggestion, but where else would we get new Stewards from? – that means there are more of us than the human brain can comprehend. Or something. But then, the Beltane community isn’t some kind of Utopian bath of multivalent friendship. It is rather a Venn diagram of cliques, overlapping each other in far more manageable numbers. The entire cast and crew come together for the two festivals and for the walk throughs before the festivals. They can come together, if they wish, at whole-society events like Drum Club. My terminology may be getting technical here: Drum Club is a club night, with drums. But such events, as fun or as sadly necessary as they may be (delete as appropriate) aren’t really where relationships are forged. Survivors of a society-wide health and safety briefing may feel bonded by their shared trauma, but are no closer to knowing who they are.
The unit of Beltane friendship isn’t the society, but the group. For two months, each group of volunteers will meet up once or twice a week to work together to a common goal. They will, by ancient tradition, go to the pub afterwards. They will go camping, and may, depending on the tone of the group in question, emerge from an improvised sweatlodge to dance naked beneath the moon. Between the regular rehearsals, there will be costumes and props to make, torchballs to wrap and soak. The little time left between all of these may well be spent at movie nights, parties, or just in the pub. Cunning games and exercises will be employed to make the test subjects… I mean volunteers.. open up to and bond with each other. Starting with name games. Endless, tedious name games. The Reds, a mainstay group within Beltane, perform on the night naked save for red paint and a tiny thong. Painting themselves red before the performance they are, therefore, naked even for those. Yet the Reds, some of who may never have met the others eight short weeks before, will happily stand naked in a room of the naked, daubing themselves with red paint. And try as you might, you always need help getting good paint coverage on the bum. The rehearsal period may be inefficiently designed with regards to staging a performance, but it’s tailor made towards creating a small tribe.
Above and beyond the name games and pub banter, the shared memories and running in-jokes which help make the tribe solider [“Solider? I ‘ardly knew ‘er” – sorry, in-joke], the creation of an artificial tribe is aided at its very core by a shared interest. Something like the camaraderie of the workplace, only where the task in hand is something each of them actually care about. What they would do for love rather than money. Sadly. And as such, they will presumably have signed up for a group whose role fits with their own tastes, their own interests, even their own fervent passions. The Reds will not only have a common performance of acrobalance to sort out between them, they will be the sort of people who like acro. Or at least running around a hill at night naked, and are willing to tolerate acro if that gets them what they want. Drum crews will gather together people who just want to hit things. Then pause. Then hit them again. Fire Point gives a welcome home to pyromaniacs. Tech gives a home to pyromaniacs with some vestige of responsibility. Puppeteers do it with duck tape. And so things would remain if people only had one interest. Which, in some cases, largely drummers, they do. But the rest of us, yet to know the zen like purity of only hitting things and only ever wanting to hit things, catch another group from the corners of our eyes or ears when we’re doing our thing, and think “I’d like to give that a try.” And so the cross pollination – or epidemic infection – of these little tribes unfolds over the years. Person X – there are some unusual names in the Beltane community,but this is just a generic example – is a drummer, and knows you very well because you’re one too. One day they’re complaining about a problem they’re having with their computer.
“You should talk to person Y,” you sagely counsel them, “they had problems with that. Don’t know what they did to fix it in the end.”
“How do you know Person Y”, they ask, irrelevantly
“Oh, I built a giant wolf with them back in 09…”
“BFS is just a load of cliques”. Thus spake a member of BFS, when in a particularly jaded mood. But its true, and its a good thing. A clique is nothing other than a tight knit group of friends. And the saving grace of the cliques of Beltane is the mesh of people in the overlaps. The connections forged across lines of obvious similarity can be refreshingly unexpected. At the same time, the cliques themselves are not exclusive. In the words of one time-served performer, chatting to me by a fire for the first time: “I’ve seen your hair around, but I don’t think we’ve ever spoke.” I’ve dotted around groups like a gadfly dilettante, painfully aware that if I do anything for long enough people might expect me to get better at it. They have stayed in a single group for years, and they’re bloody good at what they do. There was no real reason why we would have spoke to each other before. But we’d seen each other around at BFS events. We had friends in common and friends of friends in common, in a looping Rock Family Tree that would have Kevin Bacon worrying for his position. We had a nice chat. Nothing epoch shifting, but epoch shifting chats can and do happen in those circumstances.
It was on one such early morning hillside that one Beltaner turned to another and said “I want to play a piano in a field.” A few months later, and a large number of perplexed but amused hippies were witness to a live recital of works by John Cage in the middle of nowhere in a swamp. Part of which was on fire. No such art came out of my example encounter, but it was a pleasant chat nonetheless. And we didn’t even have to talk about the weather, or any local sports team. Rather, we talked about Beltaners we both knew. I’ve tried in this piece to keep everyone I may mention safely anonymous, but will make an exception here: If I recall correctly, we talked about Jamie MacNeill. For those who have not met Jamie, I would struggle to explain why he cannot be kept anonymous. For those who have, you need no explanation. You are also very lucky. As well as people, we discussed things, and events. Things and events that we had in common, or where each knew the other would appreciate or understand. These are further bulwarks of the artificial village: a shared past, shared reference points, and shared values. Two members of BFS may not know each other, but if they were up the hill the year the rain washed even the Reds clean they’ll both have a sorry tale to tell. They’ll both know the importance of a good cloak, and the pointlessness of asking “Has anyone seen a black cloak with a red lining?” They’ll know that mention of your “personal journey” or of “liminal space” are tired cliches and best kept to yourself. They’ll know that is also a cliche to note that something done once has never been done before, while something done three times has ALWAYS been done because it’s TRADITIONAL. But that an observation being hackneyed is no reason to doubt that its true. And one person’s cliche is another person’s ancient and accustomed tradition.
Shared traditions, even with that New Car Smell, are the backbone of village life. Whether it’s the burning boats of Lerwick, the burning barrels of Peterhead or burning effigies of Lewes, a traditional rite – preferably one where something’s burned – are machines for generating community. Which is a further clue that the main purpose of Beltane isn’t Performance, but Community. It is, after all, a self-conscious recreation of the communal traditions of generations past, sewn together into a Frankenstein of organic continuity. Each year there are changes in exactly what roles are involved, and exactly what manner they interact. But certain motifs are preserved, cherished and renewed. It’s possible to imagine a Beltane without the May Queen, without the Green Man, the Reds or the Whites. The Samhuinn procession could culminate in something other than a battle between two kings. But for all their creativity, their love of experimentation for its own sake, it’s highly unlikely that Beltaners will countenance such things. Some things are traditional and sacred. At least once we’ve done them three times.
Beltaners carry with them a heavy treasure of tradition. Some of them are the borrowed heirlooms of earlier communities, taken on and made their own. Written records of Edinburgh’s celebrations of May Day go back for centuries, among them the habit of dawnlit walks up Arthur’s Seat to wash one’s face in the dew. This is so well attested to that Tradfest, Scotland’s festival of traditional culture, organise walks for interested tourists to wash their own face at an ungodly hour. It’s not known how the guides explain the befuddled Beltaners who also litter the hillside, patiently explaining that they had a black cloak a moment ago, have you seen it, it had a red lining. Hopefully, they recognise the continuity here with the traditions they themselves are responding too, albeit a continuity made via historical records and advice from Scottish Ethnologists. Other traditions were fresh coined for the modern Beltane celebration, either from whole cloth, or cut to more traditional patterns. That the May Queen and Green Man run three times round a bonfire, accepting bows as they go, is new to BFS, although the main elements – fire, circling, anything in threes – really do stretch back to ancient misty times. The keening of the Whites, a shrill scream emitted as they walk through an arch of flame, shows a nod to the mourning ululation of bereaved Gaels, but is here freshly set in the context of May Day. The Whites scream, incidentally, on behalf of the wider community. Naturally. Still further newfound traditions are stitched on outside the festival itself. It is a sometime tradition, depending on the members that year, for the Whites to make a pilgrimage of remembrance to the Witchtrial Memorial on the Royal Mile. One longstanding performer presents the same gift to a certain group each year in memory of a Beltaner no longer with us. The Reds also do something each year in the name of late Reds. For reasons of solemn secrecy and good taste, I am not at liberty to reveal what this is. In each case, something new has been invented, and repeated until it has become something old. In inventing them, the new tradition bearers sought a means of reaching back towards the post, and found in doing it a means of reaching out across the present.
Mention of shared values should not suggest that Beltaners are identical, or even all agree. The disagreements and friction of a real village put their lesser equivalents in cities to shame. It takes familiarity and assured long time contact to get a proper feud going. Beltane is, in this respect again, a perfect example of a village. There are certain people who, in the earshot of certain other people, should never be named, for all that you can easily be friends with both. There are even those whose negative reputation has spread further than one isolated nemesis. I had the good fortune to meet a Beltaner from before my time, about whom I had heard a great deal of anecdote and reflection. When I recognised his name, he asked “God, do they still talk about me? What do they say?” My response, “That you’re a sexual predator with a nice car” was not happy news to his ears. Still, the infamy of the black sheep is fame of a sort, in the family. In any case, such examples of personal rancour, while they are staples of village life, are beside my point here.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the common values of the Beltane community, and, tellingly, their variety. In some of the best examples of Kurt Vonnegut’s artificial families, there is not only a central interest which forms their focus but values and lifestyle choices which will probably ride on its coat-tails. Hells Angels love their bikes for sure. They probably also like drinking, fighting, and casual misogyny. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous are, at heart, simply coping with the same disease. But while their problems may be different, many of their individual experiences may chime familiarly with each other. And in terms of coping, the programme of the AA offers a fully-fleshed out set of techniques and an ethos which goes with them. If there’s some debate over whether this ethos leaves the AA as technically a religion, there is not such uncertainty about the artificial family of the church. They are. Similarly, there are certain common values likely to be shared by Beltaners. Values, plural. Likely to be shared. The ideal village is a forest, not an industrialised tree plantation. All Beltaners have the character of someone likely to do Beltane, but given the myriad different reasons for doing Beltane there is a myriad of such characteristics. The Beltane ethos is a spectrum of types, shifting into each other and unevenly applied. Some are drawn to the performance, others to physical creation. Some like the technical problems. For some, the important point about the festival is that it stages a Pagan religious Rite. For others, it may as well be Gilbert and Sullivan for all they care, they just want to dress up. I know more atheists than avowed pagans involved in Beltane, and a surprising number of trained Christian theologians. And in the sea of hippies, doggedly materialist scientists are not uncommon. We even have a Mormon!
This piece has already gone on for far too many words, and sketching the varied values of the archetypal Beltaner would take too many more. A lazy typecasting does however give some idea. As a self-selecting community, Beltane is likely to draw people more liable than most to commit the sin of being interesting. And more likely to appreciate that sin in others, or at least to tolerate it. And more likely to be tolerant in general. The lazy type casting we fall prey to ourselves is to sum up our diverse shared qualities under the label, “hippy”. We realise that such typecasting is lazy, and not total. Many Beltaners are avowedly not hippies in their chosen lifestyles. When a chant rose up in this year’s walkthrough of “Hippy faff! Hippy faff! Hippy Hippy Hippy Faff!”, the target was clearly not the chanters themselves, and the term clearly one of kind-hearted criticism. But the term seems to have stuck – if only because “hippy time” offers a generalised excuse to be late- and so I may as well lazily employ to describe the shared values of Beltane. And one of these values is simply to assert that feeling of common identity and approachability that has repeatedly shown itself above.
There is a sense that Beltaner you do not know is a friend you haven’t met yet. And one you do know is a friend, in time of need or otherwise. When I happened to meet a Beltaner on the way to a wedding, one of my companions invited her along. In the face of her protestations that she didn’t actually know the happy couple, he laughed “It’s fine, you’ve done Beltane”. If you can cross the Meadows on a sunny day without someone in Beltane inviting you to sit or play with them, then you can’t have done Beltane long enough to be recognisable. When I needed to move a pianola halfway across town, Beltaners offered me their acro- or drum-strengthened arms. And while I don’t move hippies form one flat to another with quite enough regularity to give up my gym membership, it’s not uncommon. Given the likelihood that an individual Beltaner is…ahem..”interesting”, helping out in a flat move or sitting in the sun are the least interesting of the opportunities offered to lend aid or socialise. I’ve helped a Beltaner out by cavorting about wearing only a thong fashioned from Christian pamphlets. We were given five stars in a newspaper review, worryingly. I’ve sat up a mountain in a blizzard at sunrise, because a Beltaner thought it was a good idea and I was fool enough to listen. When I wanted to celebrate my thirty third birthday with my crucifixion, the cross was made by a Samhuinn puppeteer, and the rubber-tipped spears provided and wielded by Beltaners. They also set fire to a tree, but that was accidental.
I was once offered the chance to live two hundred miles into a desert for a week, surrounded by immersive artists who had worked out the shared identity of a tribal community. I was to dress in impractical tweeds, and take notes, analysing them from the perspective of a disinterested anthropologist. As it is, none of this was worked out well enough in advance. The “tribal community” contented themselves with building an industrial tower that emitted jets of flame into desert skies. My impractical dress was, for no readily apparent reason, a black suit and a homburg. The facile pop-anthropological schtick I seem to have saved for this article.
The artist who presented me with that plan was, of course, a Beltaner.
Photo of Neil as a Red at Beltane 2013 by Heidi Korkala.