One of the most iconic features of our festival is, of course, the fire. When you’ve seen it once, it is difficult to forget. The combination of flaming torches, fire sculptures, and the bonfire all come together to make an awesome view on top of Calton Hill – and the warmth of the flames on your cheeks makes a welcome change from the chilly Edinburgh nights that have come before. There are many different kinds of flame that our witnesses traditionally encounter at Beltane Fire Festival, so we have put together this fiery guide to what you can expect to see on the night.
Technically our celebration begins at sundown, so you won’t see much of the sun (unless you arrive very early). But the word “Beltane” comes from the Celtic god Bel, which translates as “bright one” and can be interpreted as a sort of sun god. In many ways our Green Man is a manifestation of that figure, and his journey represents the return of warmth and light to the land.
Beltane Fire Festival begins with the lighting of the Neid Fire, which is done using a traditional method passed down from the ancient communities that inspire our festival. We start it by hand with a bow, a hazel spindle, and a pine hearth board, using a bit of good old-fashioned friction to spark the kindling. Once we have a smouldering ember, it is spun through the air in a metal contraption to give it plenty of oxygen and help it catch fully alight. All the other fire on the Hill is then lit using this special flame.
The Neid Fire is considered to be a purifying fire. It cleanses away the hardships that have plagued people through Winter, and leaves behind a fertile path for new life to grow. At old Beltanes, communities would light two new fires using the Neid technique and drive their cattle between them for good luck. It was believed that this would ward off diseases and keep this source of food healthy and strong for the months ahead. The Neid fire was also passed around all the hearths in the community to relight the fires in each home and kickstart the new season.
Stood in between our witnesses and our performers will be the torchbearers, who maintain the final threshold between the human and spiritual realm. The light from their torches illuminates the action, lifting the veil that ordinarily obscures Beltane’s otherworldly cast from plain sight. They also form a protective barrier for our volunteers by maintaining the space for them to perform in. If you get lost on the Hill (which can happen), you can look for the torches to guide you back to the procession.
One of the key points in our procession is the Fire Arch, the latest enormous version of which was built last year for our 30th birthday by our volunteers. It is here that the May Queen, the Green Man, and all our other characters officially step beyond the human world, but to pass through they must first discard a part of themselves. This is a difficult, somewhat painful process, for the Green Man especially who has some of his wintry guise pruned and stripped back. This is a place to let go of our ego and the aspects of our past that our holding us back so that we can move forward with the change of the seasons.
For many in our community, the bonfire being lit marks the pivotal point of Beltane. The moment comes once the Green Man has died and been reborn, allowing him to shake off his past and be reunited with the May Queen as her consort. The pair light the bonfire together, and in doing so ignite the spark that will illuminate the coming months. This is the time when summer is reborn and the turn of the year is toasted in celebration around the towering blaze.