At the end of one of the full cast walkthrough rehearsals for Beltane 2015 on Calton Hill, the gathered crowd of volunteers were lucky enough to share an experience that helped us to feel more deeply connected, not only with each other but with the history of our event and our community, and the people who started it all. Angus Farquhar, Beltane founder and member of pioneering industrial musical collective Test Dept, spoke to us about how it all began and shared an excerpt from his diary from 30th April 1988 – the first Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill.
As he explains in Total State Machine: A Definitive Test Dept History (available in hardback and paperback, published by PC Press, reviewed on Bella Caledonia, text republished here with permission, all rights reserved)…
Yes, starting Beltane was a new chapter for me and the band. After some years of fighting political battles during the Miners Strike and then onto battling with Murdoch at his Wapping Fortress, I was looking for something beyond that black/white narrative and researching Beltane released some deeply held beliefs about the need for public ritual and not losing touch with our surroundings even it a city setting. The beauty of Edinburgh is that you never lost a sense of topography and place in the wider natural landscape. I’m immensely proud of the continued flourishing of Beltane, it has always been bigger than any individual who takes part, we found on some small level, our common humanity and work together to release something intangibly beyond our separate lives.
Angus’ diary: Beltane, 30 April 1988
Steaming on the train North, whisky and beer, straight off at Waverley and into the arms of Hamish Henderson in the Station bar, we are both happy but a touch the worse for wear. A stumbling reconnaissance of Calton Hill follows, with me blowing a big animal horn to get a feel for things. A £500 budget already gone, the next two days are spent in a riot of organisation with co-conspirators Kevin Anderson and Gus Ferguson. Everything has to be begged for as in-kind or sponsorship. I visit the School of Scottish Studies, Hamish plays some great archive material: Summer comes wi’ warm shooers. I meet Bob Burtram singing ‘when I was a lad in auld reekie toon’, and invite him up to the first Beltane, his reply: ‘I’ll be beltin’ up the hill and beltin’ back the whisky!’ A pinned up notice in Hamish’s office: Great things are done when men and mountains meet. Things are not done when jostling in the street.
It is his support that led to us doing the re-initiation on Calton Hill, righting the wrongs of centuries of bad associations as so-called witches had been hung there. It is the proper place to bring back the fire, as it is the people’s hill and is not sullied by its relationship to royalty such as the original site on Arthur’s seat, now controlled by the Crown commission. I push him to write a piece on the history for us, his last words: ‘Angus you’re like a terrier.’ I am in manic pitch – 30-40 musicians contacted by phone. We find out that the wood to be provided by the council amounts to one white vinyl three-piece sofa, now on the hill, and providing a perfect respite for wandering tourists and jakeys.
We seek wood from the forestry commission and a lead makes a consignment of logs from Braemar sound possible, till they realise who we are and what it’s for. They are a government quango and pull out, perhaps mindful of fantasy headlines like ‘Thatcher sponsors pagan fire festival!’ I ring Dalmeny estate, remembering childhood fireworks nights staged on the Forth shore by Lord Roseberry – a slightly eccentric pyromaniac. He acquiesces immediately, offering five tons of firewood, a truck and driver.
Everyone arrived from London, Test Dept, sundry members of the London Samba Band and Liz Ranken, our brilliant dancer and white witch, who I had first worked with in Goldsmiths days on my degree production A Litany to Satan. Over 6 feet of unstoppable energy with waist-length flaming red hair – who better to be the first May Queen! On the final Saturday we woke early and worked intensely through the day. Help from many different people, a council sawmill was specially opened to pick up more logs.
We practised endless drum patterns in the pouring rain, sheltered at times by the imposing columns of the Acropolis. As the day wore on the weather worsened, at 6pm there was talk of abandonment, but a fighting spirit shone through and I said ‘Fuck it, we’ll do it in a snowstorm with three Lithuanian dwarves if we have to!’
I had asked Lindsay John, a brilliant contemporary Butoh dancer, to be a completely red devilish scapegoat figure, but he had been ill recently and couldn’t comply. Instead in one day he made Liz the most beautiful Queen’s costume with a high headdress fanning out in a criss-crossing pattern, each cross decorated with a daffodil. The dress resplendent with greenery, half inched from the hill and Princes Street gardens.
At 11.30pm we made manic final arrangements for torchbearers and to get the drummers into a rough processional order. As a force 6 gale blew in off the Forth, the May Queen was rung with hand bells up onto the steps of the Acropolis, the column bulks dark against the sky. Torches were lit and held aloft between each pillar, the wind carrying sparks of fire over the heads of the crowd below. A big slow regimented rhythm commenced and we walked off deiseil (southward) around the hill.
Liz, now completely transported into the spirit of the May Queen, turned slowly, her eyes unfocused, with extended hands on short poles. (The hand placed upright is a medieval symbol for the start of an anarchic local festival.) Test Dept piper Alistair led with a slow air. Reaching the fire, we walked around it three times blowing animal horns and conch shells. I remember laughing more than playing at this point, at the absurdity of it all in the driving rain, at the madness of what we were doing. Then we tried to light the fire, which of course, now damp all the way through, took ages. A skinhead boy leapt out from the crowd and like a teenage arsonist coaxed the smoke into flames, which at first grudgingly and then excitedly leapt into action. The fire raged high, the lights of Edinburgh blanketed all around, I jumped up on the trig point and then shouted the first Beltane toast:
‘On this great Beltane night
Raise your glasses high and toast
To the fire our lively friend
And the earth beneath our host!’
Faster pipe tunes commenced, led by Martyn Bennet, the rain continued to pour down, you could toast one side of yourself from the heat of the fire while the other got soaking wet and then turn round to repeat on the other side. Angus McNicoll read a Beltane poem from innumerable scraps of paper. A bottle of Grouse was cracked open. Test Dept played a storming set on a small stage – ‘Nadka’, ‘The Bugler’ and ‘Siege’ – with howled shouts punctuating thundering rhythms, thrown out to the skies, then screamed back to us by the jigging audience. Hamish sang ‘Freedom Call All Ye’ and the ‘Padstowe May song’ from Cornwall. Margaret Bennet sang two beautiful gaelic songs, holding people’s attention as the elements raged all around them.
Then, in the small hours, a canopy of wild and drunken oblivion. Snatched memories of wild drumming coalescing and then falling apart. The May Queen propositioned again and again for marriage. Arguing with the police, ‘If you try and stop this you’ll have a fight on your hands’…, with me being the only one left drumming! A friend stops me falling into the fire at least twice throughout the night.
Finally the Queen and myself handed out quartered Beltane bannocks from a bag to the last of the crowd on the hill, with the exhortation to break off the point of the biscuit, throw it over your shoulder into the fire and wish yourself luck for the coming year. Liz is holding me up and we walk in circles offering the same 20 people bannocks over and over again, me falling over again and again saying ‘Isn’t life beautiful’ Gray and Teresa carry me off the hill, I exhort Gray to go back up, he says there are only five people there, but I say again ‘You’ve got to look after them, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’
Something magical did happen on that hill, restarting a great fertility festival in modern times, for luck and reconnection if not fruitfulness of food and crops. We put plenty of sparks out into the ether, a simple honest celebration. Braving the elements and even shaking a bit of Edinburgh out of its bourgeois comfort.
Photo of Angus at a Beltane 2015 walkthrough, by Neil Barton.