Samhuinn 2015 is over and updated information will be posted in time for next year’s festival.
When asked about my history with BFS, my mind casts fondly back to my very first experience as a audience member at Beltane 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 BFS 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. BFS 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 Samhuinn. And again I was offered a new perspective on the deep sense of ritual that runs through BFS, 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 potential. Our festivals have 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 events that we put on are still recognisable as the ones that have been celebrated in this city, as a beacon to the people of Edinburgh, since the first Beltane in 1988. It is, for me, 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 Rob and I am one of your Blues.
Photo of Rob, above left, by Raini Scott.
“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.” (Joseph Campbell)
Hi. My name’s Jo, I’m a Blue, and I’d like to say a little something about my experience of the sacred.
I didn’t believe in much before I joined Beltane. I was your typical undergrad cynic, happiest spending hours smoking roll-ups, necking cheap and nasty whiskey til dawn. Back then, I welcomed the light of the new day as a symbol that the shops would open and sustenance could soon be bought.
I was in my final year of uni when I attended my first BFS Open Meeting in February 2009, dragged along by a keen friend who had a vague notion of what we were about to volunteer for. I was mainly interested in getting chips after.
The presentations were interesting, but the significance of it didn’t go in. I remember looking at my pal at the end and both of us agreeing to try ‘the naked group’, because naked. I think it was the third week of cold, weird practices in the Meadows before I fully understood that ‘naked’ meant ‘naked in front of thousands of people’. But by then, I was hooked on the sheer bloody-minded strangeness of it all.
I’m a bit of an actress, getting involved in school plays and the like, so what kept me coming back at first were the character games, as well as the in-jokes, the banter and the pub sessions after the mud (naturally). The first time I experienced the deeper, more ritualistic meaning of Beltane was when the Blues visited us for the first time.
We were told to ‘get into character’, or in other words form a quasi-human ball of flesh, heads and limbs poking out in all directions. Out of the dark mist, under cherry trees and across the grass, three figures emerged like ghosts. They were carrying long, bendy sticks, one in each hand, and their gaze was so focused, looking past and through us, that I had the sudden eerie impression that we were the ghosts, and they were the ones who were real.
Our Group Organisers slowly started writhing, crawling, rolling, in the direction of these three figures, who had by now encircled our ball of bodies. The curious nature of our characters, chaotic and wild, drew us to the dichotomy of these solemn, intense beings. The Blues were as still as statues until the very last moment, when a Red finger hovered centimetres from a Blue face. And then…
Well. If you’ve ever done Beltane, you can probably guess what happened next. If you haven’t, all I will say is that the Blues form the barrier for chaos to push against. The sea-wall, breaking the waves. Blues are protectors and guides, shamanistic in their power to communicate between the abstract and the physical. And they have withies (big sticks) to assist them.
I used to think ‘being in character’ was the act of trying to be somebody else, and it kind of is. But it’s more than that as well. At its best, it means reaching so deep within yourself, I begin to share my own unique expression of the themes which connect us all. Performing as part of a ritual like Beltane or Samhuinn still has the power to make me question my assumptions, behaviours and thoughts, and to force me to decide afresh how I want to live.
For me, the ritual significance of Samhuinn is about letting go. Summer is over and Winter is gradually advancing. The foliage is changing colour, the final fruits are bursting forth, and the nights are growing longer and increasingly cold. Taking part of the ritual of Samhuinn, performing on All Hallow’s Eve in the Grassmarket, near the place of the hangings and in the shadow of the Castle, where ancient markets and fairs used to throng with people, means remembering that change is forever afoot. That transformation is as perennial as the tides – you only have to know where to look.
One final thing. Luckily, despite all this deep and meaningful ritual and spiritual significance, Beltaners are absolutely the most ridiculous, hell-bent-on-having-a-good-time people I’ve ever had the pleasure of raising a toast with. I’m still that same undergrad at heart, drinking til dawn and reveling in the glory of living. Except now, I also have the honour of helping to guide others towards their own personal understanding of the sacredness of celebrating and the power of performing a ritual.
What the dawn symbolizes for me now is freshness. The constant possibility of starting again, wiping the slate clean like Winter does each year to the land… And I’ve learned that going to the shops is more fun when you’re painted blue.
Photo of Jo, above left, by Airun do Lua.
The old cobbles of Edinburgh’s High Street gleamed in the wet, bouncing back a thousand flash lights coming from a sea of onlookers. Amidst the whirlwind of legs and flailing arms, the Summer King turned towards us and paused in front of his Summer court with his arms extended. The pitter patter of the rain is gathering force and it’s really starting to pour. He stood before us proud, opulent and somewhat over ripe from a full summer of feasting. We suddenly run ahead, past the sombre and sacred pinnacle of the procession. Four of my fellow Red Men grab me and hoist me into the air, limbs splayed, shrieking and cackling I give birth to a gnarled red wee creature (a stuffed teddy, lovingly nicked named Henri). We unfurl a web of strawberry laces from under my costume and devour them ghoulishly. There is a collective gasp from the audience. The sky opens and the rain becomes torrential. Wet, sticky and messy, we laugh. Laugh at Death with our Ancestors on this liminal night of mayhem, reflection and celebration; of Summer’s demise and Winter’s reign.
That is one of my fondest Samhuinn memories and that’s what Samhuinn is for me; it’s a chaotic retelling of the shifting seasons. It’s acknowledging the cycle of death without fearing it. It’s our final harvest celebration before the stark Winter stills into hibernation and gestation until the next turn of the wheel and the cycle begins again.
Over my decade long love affair with BFS, I’ve celebrated numerous Samhuinns as Red and White/Winter Hag. One year I joined Photopoint and was thrilled to experience the full force of the ritual in a way I’d never felt before while being ‘inside’ it. This is my second Samhuinn Blue-ing. First lesson learned is that blue paint is much harder to wash off than red paint. Second, is the humbling experience of being dedicated to something so much bigger than myself by protecting the path of the Kings and the ancient, primal and perennial Celtic representation of the Cailleach. As a Blue we stand with one foot in this world and one foot in the Otherworld. We act as ritual guides for the court and the procession on the night and help guide the groups of volunteers during the run up. We don’t ‘perform’ as such but oversee all the weaving narratives that feed into the court story and our collective folklore, which in turn echoes Scottish All Hallow’s Eve traditions, pageantry and plays.
Blues work closely with the Court and this year, on a personal level, I get to see the final flourishes of the Summer King who was my Green Man (as May Queen) at Beltane. It’s the character and personal connections fostered that I treasure about BFS. That, and who could resist guiding the mayhem and macabre through the streets and unleashing it into the heart of the city.
I’m Anna and I am a blue. See you on the night. Come, join the carnival.
Photos of Anna (above left) by Ashish Aghi and (above right) by Raini Scott