This information is from Beltane Fire Festival 2015. It will be updated in time for next Beltane but is being left in place until then for anyone who wants to read about the festival.
I’ve been volunteering for quite some time now. Not quite ‘in with the bricks’ you understand, but I do have fond memories of being on ‘the Hill’ all night when it was free to witness, when the drummers hated ‘having’ to go to the club for an hour, and sharing room around the bonfire as dawn broke over the North Sea.
Changed days in those respects, but the core of our celebration hasn’t changed; nor has the passion, or the capacity of volunteers to provide surprising and beautiful interpretations of their part of the whole. It’s why I’m still involved: I love aiding volunteers to realise their visions – and helping them discover what marvels they’re capable of. People are amazing; communities working together are awesome. (My other main reason would be my experiences in 2000, but that’s more of an intimate campfire tale.)
As one of the Blues the role allows me to provide mentoring to many as well as helping enrich the festivals by sharing the focus and background of the key elements. You can read more about Blues elsewhere on the blog, but in essence these are important drivers for me within our festivals. Prior to this (and in no order) I have been in and led Fire Point, experienced Whites, and had a good run with the Blues. I gave up counting festivals a while back as it’s hard enough to remember how many years it’s been since 1999.
Why do I keep coming back? The volunteers, as mentioned above, but also the privilege of being able to share something with the good folks who come to witness the celebration our community theatre puts on on a shoestring (the tickets pay for infrastructure, the volunteers pay for themselves). Whether it’s in good weather with over 12,000 people in 2006, the sudden downpour in 2008, or that bone-deep cold of 2014, I have been humbled by those who come to share our celebration, regardless. Thank you, one and all.
Photo of Andy, above left, by Duncan McGregor.
When asked about my history with Beltane my mind casts fondly back to my very first experience as a audience member back in 1999. Back to the days when tickets were unheard of and up to 20000 folk would come together on a hill in the centre of the capital city to take part in a Bacchanalian celebration of the coming of summer. The party lasted all night, the drums pounded until the sun came up and I was young, inebriated and curious about the anarchic event I’d heard of. Fire! Drums! Nudity! I was sold. Back then I had no idea that there was a procession, I didn’t see the unveiling of the May Queen on the Parthenon and the gathered hordes stopped me getting very close to anything else. But the drums beat an insistent rhythm into my very core and I wanted to dance. The only nudity I experienced that year was my own, as I was compelled to strip off and dance unabated, lost in a swirling eddy of unadulterated joy. Those standing around me were not so moved however, probably wondering who the drunk naked guy was. Ah well…
Fast forward 6 years and I had discovered African drumming, and was finding my feet as a djembe player. My drum teacher mentioned he was running a group for an event up Calton Hill which was a lot of fun and I should come along. BELTANE! This was my in! And so I found myself taking my first tentative steps on my journey as my Beastie was born. The next two months flew by in a flurry of facefuls of soft mud, gloriously swollen, blistered and eventually calloused hands, cuddle puddles, and flowing, tribal, earthy rhythms as I enveloped myself in this new world I had discovered. Friendships were forged which endure to this day across oceans and continents. And then there was the night… Everything that immature drunken little 18 year old had thought about Beltane was turned to dust as I lost myself in a maelstrom of ritualistic chaos, truly becoming my Beastie and adding my energy to that of the gathered masses, feeling a sense of connection I had never experienced before. This was what my life had been leading up to, this is what my heart beat for.
Over the course of the next few years I honed my skills both rhythmically and as a performer. When my drum teacher had to make the decision to step away from the Beasties to concentrate on family responsibilities I seized my chance to give something back and became Beastie leader. As a first year primary school teacher at the time I had no business committing myself to something so huge, but Beltane has always inspired and driven me by way of compulsion. This was something I had to do. Life in Beltane was life with the volume turned up (to 11!). Everything else could bend and be shifted, but the sense of community, of creating something truly special, of surrendering my energy to facilitate the achievement of a shared goal, of building something not only for ourselves but as a gift to the wider community of Edinburgh was a drug to me, something I needed in my life. An unfortunate symptom of growing up is that we forget that child-like awe of the world, the joy of running, jumping and rolling in the mud; of climbing trees, singing, playing games, and hugging your friends; of playing make believe and therefore exploring our deepest inner selves through play. Beltane gave this back to me. It also taught me to observe the turning of the seasons, the budding of the trees, the opening of the Spring flowers. This joy of revelling in nature and my connection to it led me to answer the call to be Green Man, as well as the Winter King for Beltane’s sister festival Samhuinn. And again I was offered a new perspective on the deep sense of ritual that runs through Beltane, the deep impulse within the human spirit to connect to our surroundings, to celebrate and revel in nature’s bounty, to ritualistically cast off the shackles of winter and bound into the sunshine to feel the glow of new promise, to acknowledge the continual flux and flow of life, the peaks and troughs, the continual cycle of death and rebirth.
And so to present day, 10 years after I first stripped myself bare to ritually daub my body with red body paint, I now revel in supporting and facilitating other people’s journey to that moment of ethereal bliss as they realise their Beltane potential. The festival has moulded and morphed over the years as the membership of the Society has changed and the energy that is brought to it has changed too. But the core elements stand strong and the event that we put on is still recognisable as the one that has been celebrated in this city upon that hill, as a beacon to the people of Edinburgh, since its inception in 1988. Beltane for me is a journey of a collective vision which echoes that of our Neid Fire; it wends its way from the spark of inspiration to the raging inferno of community celebration. I take joy in finding the balance between ensuring that held traditions are respected within the festival and making space for new energy and ideas to flow through.
Dear friends, my name is Bob and I am one of your Blues.
Photo of Bob, above left, by Raini Scott.
“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again” – Joseph Campbell.
Join me in picturing the scene: the University of Edinburgh library. 30th April 2009. A sunny afternoon. It’s your final year of university and exams are right round the corner. You’re struggling to pay attention to a dusty page, as your gaze is pulled through the window, falling on a scrap of earth nestled between Middle Meadow Walk and Jawbone. This is your newest sacred space – the birthplace of your Redman. Where you’ve spent the past 8 weeks pushing through your limits and living to tell the tale. Where lasting friendships were sculpted from soft mud.
Now. You’re tapping your pen on the page and daydreaming about tonight’s bonfire. How it’s going to feel, flickering against your flesh, heat banishing the cold grip of Winter from your mind and your heart. You hold onto this delicious spark of excitement, although you suspect it’s only the beginning of something much bigger…
Flash forwards 9 months. It’s the end of February and frosty outside. You’re standing up at the Beltane Open Meeting and along with your co-organiser, you’re beginning to tease the audience with your ideas for Reds this year. A sea of faces grin back. Over the next 2 months your confidence blossoms, reflecting the world around you as increasingly warm weather gently encourages seeds to grow and buds to open.Right. You’re as ready as you’ll ever be! Time for a Rocky-style montage spanning the next four years, in which you join different groups – learning from them, playing with them…
***Spoiler Alert: There will be fire! There will be ritual! There will be nudity!***
You experience blissful peace with the ethereal Whites, cosmically flow through Water Point, then pop up as the orange shade of a tap-dancing rainbow. You create a character for a new percussion group, based on the ancient myths of faery folk who live and feast beneath the Scottish hills. Meanwhile, the BFS soundtrack shakes a certain part of your body as it connects with the boom-BOOM of the Beastie and Processional drummers. You strap a djembe to your chest and discover drumming is just very loud dancing.
And eventually, as inevitably as the seasons turn, you’re drawn back to that scrap of Red earth, trodden by the feet of those who dare to dream… Along the way, you naturally want to give back to the community that’s given you so much. You join the BFS Committee and offer your time and energy to the logistical requirements of the festivals.
You hug strangers until they’re not strangers anymore. Dance with friends until you can’t dance anymore. Eat some cake… and then eat some more cake. You discover that you’ve learned to imagine the unimaginable, and then, how to Make It Happen. How to connect with the natural landscape, around you and within you. That the thing you do is magical, in a very special way. A way that grounds you. And so, with this small taste of her own, personal BFS experience, your newest Blue would like to wish you all an unforgettable Beltane, this year and forever. Bring on the 30th of April.
Photo of Jo, above left, by Airun do Lua.
Hi, my name’s Tom and as a Blue and Trustee I’ve been asked to put together a short piece to introduce myself to our wonderful Society. This year is the twentieth since I first got involved with the Beltane Fire Society. I remember visiting an empty department store on the bridges where it was being organised that year and ran into one of the old hands, Mad Mark who, given that I have red hair, invited me to be a Redman that year whom he described as being the spirits of anarchy, chaos and sexuality. During the Beltane that year Mark told me he was standing down as “Chief o’ the Redmen” and ask if I I take over, which I did. This was the first of many roles I was to take in the Society, going on to organise Red, White, Water, becoming Chair of the Society, long-standing Trustee, Producer, Green Man and Horned God, as well as running many performance and movement workshops for many other groups.
The Society has gone through lots of big changes in the time I’ve been involved – the ongoing gender issues where we removed unnecessary gendering from groups such as Red, White and Blue; the introduction of a more democratic way of choosing our Group Organisers and who runs the Society; the introduction of ticketing for the event; becoming a charitable company with limited status, and many more.
The best of Beltane for me is that it isn’t a set thing but has the malleability, the ability to be whatever it needs to be for the people that are involved that year. Trustees, Blues, Event Coordinator etc just provide a framework; the volunteers make it what it has to be that year.
One of the reasons I still do it is that I get a lot out of being able to help facilitate the massive amount of learning and deep experiences that people have when doing stuff with us. I’m not here to show people how to “do” Beltane or to make sure they aren’t “reinventing the wheel”. Personally I think reinventing the wheel is important for people as ownership of the festival and their performance and personal ritual is very important and is enhanced by being allowed to experiment and fail as well as succeed. As such, I see my role within the Society more to make sure the wheels (no matter what size or shape) don’t fall off, even if it can make the ride a bit bumpy.
Photo of Tom, above left, by James Illing and above right, by Stuart Barrett.