The radical roots of Beltane

Drums. The thundering clamour that sweeps across the Hill. The rhythmic pulse that fills our hearts and ears. The beat that propels our procession forward, increasing in intensity as we get closer to the lighting of the bonfire and the beginning of Summer. There is no denying that our drumming groups create an amazing atmosphere at Beltane Fire Festival, but did you know that they are also essential to our society’s radical history?

Copyright Neil Barton for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. http://www.beltane.org / facebook.com/beltanefiresociety

To understand the significance of drums to Beltane, you first have to know about a band called Test Dept. Now considered one of the most influential industrial bands from the 1980s, Test Dept’s sound was created using “found” objects – scrap metal, oil drums, piping, you name it! – that were then repurposed for a more instrumental use. Out of these recycled materials they created complex percussive music, which they combined with sampling to create a jagged and dystopian atmosphere.

From their inception Test Dept had a distinctly anti-establishment edge, but it was in the mid-1980s that they took an overt political stance. Thatcher was closing the pits and, faced with a threat to their livelihood and communities, miners all over the UK were striking. Test Dept joined them at the picket lines, banging and scraping an abrasive noise in solidarity with the protestors. They even recorded an LP with a choir of South Wales miners, which they called Shoulder to Shoulder. For them, drums could be entertaining, but they could also carry a message and amplify the voices of those most vulnerable.

Copyright Martin McCarthy for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved. http://www.beltane.org / http://www.facebook.com/beltanefiresociety

On 30th April in 1988, Angus Farquhar, one of the band’s members, stepped off a train in Edinburgh. He was there to recreate the Celtic festival Beltane, with the help of a small group of folk culture artists, enthusiasts, and academics – including the folk singer and Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh Margaret Bennett and the eminent physical theatre practitioner Lindsay John.

“Yes, starting Beltane was a new chapter for me and the band,” Angus says. “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”.

Thatcher may have still been in power at the time, but fire is a purifying force and the celebration of Beltane was also implicitly tied to a hope for change. Summer brings with it new beginnings, the ending of hardship, the possibility of easier times, which the drums now herald when they begin to pound on Calton Hill. Thirty years ago, those drums were a reminder of a different politics, of fighting back as a community and flying in the face of the idea that “There is no such thing as society”. “It has always been bigger than any individual who takes part,” says Angus. “We found, on some small level, our common humanity and worked together to release something intangibly beyond our separate lives”.

This year, when you hear the drums on Calton Hill, we encourage you to remember Test Dept. The beat is fun to dance to, but it is also rooted in a history of resistance, togetherness, and making a racket against the unjust.

Featured image by Martin McCarthy for Beltane Fire Society. All rights reserved. 

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