For every Beltane, Calton Hill plays host to many locations. A core site every year is its Fire Arch, which the May Queen and her Procession visit early in their journey around the Hill. This huge archway represents the doorway into the ‘other’ realm, a gate to the spirit world, and the thinnest part of the veil to another place.
By passing under it while it burns above them, the Procession moves beyond our physical realm and onwards to bring the start of summer. The site is a key fixture and always has some common features each year:
- It’s an Arch
- It will be set on fire (at least once in the festival)
- It will have the Procession pass under it
However, the performance group who resides at the Fire Arch site varies each year in character, performance style and personality. This variety means that although the Arch will always act as a gateway, the Fire Arch experienced by our witnesses will change every year. I think this is why Fire Arch holds a special place whether you’ve experienced Beltane for the first time or a dozen times.
A Fiery Introduction
For me, the Fire Arch holds some of my most treasured memories of the Beltane Fire Festival. And this year, being a group organiser for the Fire Arch, I’m passionate about the characters and performance we are developing for this year’s Festival. But in truth my love of the Fire Arch goes all the way back to before I joined Beltane Fire Society as a volunteer.
In 2015, I watched Beltane for the first time. Due to a lot of map-confusion (we’ve all been there!), I ended up behind the Fire Arch when it was lit. I was in the action, watching the huge arc of fire, the May Queen and the Whites passing under it, and the Processional Drummers. It felt like a very special place, like the beating heart of Beltane. Which is why for 2016’s Beltane I quickly joined the Fire Arch group as a performer.
Our 2016 group was a small group of fire guardians, who stood to protect the Arch from anyone entering it, except the May Queen and her Procession. For me, it was the perfect starting point as a performer, learning basic acro and fire performance skills. We performed our fire show to the May Queen as the Arch burned, it felt so exhilarating to share a small part of the overall Beltane story and I knew I would want to perform again and again as a Beltaner.
BurNing Bright & ‘Keening’ in White
Of course, the Fire Arch is not just a vital site for the performance group stationed there. In 2017 I joined the Whites. The Whites are the trusting companions of the May Queen, following and supporting Her journey around the Hill. While passing under Fire Arch, the Whites will keen, a beautiful but bleak cry from their core. Representing communal grief, keening recalls the old traditions of wailing women or professional mourners, who displayed public grief at times where the family of the deceased could not.
Keening as a White under the Arch is a powerful but heart-wrenching experience, holding a space for those emotions shared across our whole community. Those who want to witness and share in that expression of grief will often come to the Arch and wait for that moment to join the cry, experiencing firsthand a key aspect to the White’s journey. It’s emotionally draining but very rewarding to share such emotions with our wider Beltane community.
Finding My Own Fire Beat
Not stopping there, in 2019 I drummed at the Fire Arch as a member of the Processional Drummers. As I walked under the lit Arch with my drum, I could feel the power of stepping over that threshold into another realm. The Arch might be a metal and fire-rope frame diligently assembled by our amazing volunteers, but it holds undeniable impact. It’s a spectacle that I encourage anyone to come see themselves during the Beltane Fire Festival.
Our 2022 Beltane Fire Arch
It’s been three years since the Beltane Fire Festival was on Calton Hill. When the call went to do an in-person festival once again, I knew that I had to develop a Fire Arch group and make that location proud, as it holds so many significant memories for me.
If you come to our Festival and visit our Arch on Beltane night, you will meet our crew, the Goblin Republic of the “Sometimes it’s on Fire” Arch. Together, we are a roving band of fire-spinning goblins. We are mischievous and aim to dazzle you with our quirky characters and fire-spinning fun… but be quick, as we will be roaming around to other sites on the Hill after our Fire Arch burns.
I hope you will see our Goblin Republic perform at the Arch on Beltane night and be just as dazzled by the Fire Arch as I was back in 2015! Perhaps it will awaken your own Beltane performance journey.
Still need 2022 Beltane tickets? Snag yours before they run out here.
Written By Hannah Smith, Beltane 2022 Group Organiser