The flaming sculptures hanging between the National Monument’s pillars. The bonfire blazing against Edinburgh’s skyline. The jolt you feel when you look down and see cars driving past, as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary could be taking place in the centre of Edinburgh. It’s difficult to imagine Beltane Fire Festival without Calton Hill, but if you look south you will see the original venue of the ancient festival it is inspired by.
Long before our founders reignited the festival’s embers, generations of Edinburgh folk celebrated summer’s return on Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that famously sits in the middle of the city, at least as far back as the 16th-century. There are stories of young women climbing the hill to wash their faces with morning dew, which would preserve their health and beauty for the next year. The fires were lit there until close to the turn of the 20th century, and some say any informal Beltane fires that carried on beyond that disappeared because the Second World War necessitated blackouts.
So why, when the modern Beltane Fire Festival was brought back to life 30 years ago, did we not return to Arthur’s Seat? The answer lies with who owns the land. One of the core principles for the people like Angus Farquhar and the poet Hamish Henderson – who created our first event – was restoring folk’s revolutionary character to Scotland’s cultural landscape. Arthur’s Seat, by that point, was owned by the Crown commission, which was felt to at least be at odds with our founder’s aims, if not downright contentious.
But the event still needed to be tied to the land, since so much of Beltane celebrates our enduring connection with the natural world even in urban settings. The venue also needed to be relatively central and accessible so that everyone, regardless of who they were, could easily attend the event. The great thing about Edinburgh is how closely the city is embedded with the land around it – our founders did not have to look far to find another suitable location for Beltane’s comeback.
Calton Hill, in 1988, had a very different reputation to Arthur’s Seat. It was known as a “no go” area because of its association with sex and drugs, and had historically been a site where women were burnt as witches. It was, as Angus put it in his diary describing the first modern Beltane, much more “the people’s hill” than its royal neighbour.
Another point of significance for the spot was that Edinburgh’s ‘Hallow’s Fair’, which began in the 1470s around Samhuinn (now known as Hallowe’en), was moved to Calton Hill in the 1800s, after the city authorities banned it from the town centre. The event was a festival, livestock market and drunken party held to celebrate one of the other Celtic quarter days that sits alongside Beltane, and it was felt that revellers would do less damage away from the city streets.
So in the late 1980s Beltane Fire Festival reclaimed the Hill for its local community, inviting Edinburgh folk to attend the revelries right at its centre for years. The festival has gone from its five or so performers on that first night, with an audience of 50-100 people, to an enormous celebration made up of hundreds of volunteers and thousands upon thousands of witnesses. And Calton Hill has now grown to be a major tourist attraction, with its view of Edinburgh becoming one of the capital city’s most iconic images.
We like to think that the magic of Beltane has had a little something to do with that.
Copyright Sylwia Kowalczyk for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved http://www.beltane.org / fecebook.com/beltanefiresociety