Friday, July 8, 2011

A post by Ryan Morrison

One of my fondest and most abiding childhood memories occurred on the evening of April 30th 1990. I spent the day fishing by the canal with my dear old grandfather who I adored, when he turned to me and asked if I would like to attend a Celtic fire festival up on the hill that night. I was 12 years old and had absolutely no idea what this would involve but hey, it sounded like a lot of fun.

Let me introduce you to the Beltane Fire Festival.

The modern event is inspired by the ancient Gaelic festival of Beltane which marked the beginning of summer. The gathering was re-introduced in 1988 by a small group of enthusiastic academics from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh and takes place on April the 30th each year at the summit of Calton Hill in my home town of Edinburgh. The festival has continued to grow in popularity over the years and now attracts an audience of over twelve thousand people.

The name itself is thought to have derived from an old Gaelic/Celtic word meaning 'bright sacred fire'. It was originally held to mark and celebrate the blossoming of spring and coincided with the pastoral event of taking livestock to their summer grazing. Beltane tended to be held on the first full moon after the modern 1st of May, there was no fixed solar date as the tradition of solstices and equinoxes were later in origin.

Although it was also a celebration of the fertility of their land and animals, the main traditional element which was common to all Beltane festivals was the fire that gave it its name. All fires in the community would be extinguished and a new 'sacred need fire' would be lit usually by the spiritual leader or the head of the village. From this fresh flame, two bonfires were lit and the animals of the community would be driven through them. The belief was that the smoke and fire from the sacred flame would purify the herd and protect them in the year ahead. The people would then remove pieces of burning wood from the fires and re-light their own hearths with them.

The festival that is held now kicks off with a procession of performers starting at the Acropolis national monument, who perform a ritual drama based on the original Beltane festivities. Led by one of the guides known as 'the blue man', the sacred fire is made by traditional methods with all fire seen on the night coming from this first flame. The torchbearers and processional drummers are next over the hill followed by the White Warrior Woman and finally the May Queen.

This unique festival continues well into the night with drumming, dancing and general good natured revelry culminating in wild Celtic celebrations found in no other part of the world. A must see attraction if you are ever in Edinburgh at the end of April.

Ryan Morrison is an Edinburgh based blogger and the owner of  Scotland Here And Now


  1. I love traditions like this and knowing how and why they are done makes them more important. I would love to visit Beltane Fire Celebration. My Scottish genes keep pushing me to go back to Scotland because they think they belong there.

  2. Hi Paisley I'm sure you would really enjoy Beltane, as it's a festival where participation is actively encouraged. You must visit Scotland one day and give those genes of yours some peace of mind.

  3. Thank you Ryan for the great post and for coming back to answer. This sounds great and it is deffinately something I want to experience when one day I go to Scotland.

  4. I'm sure you will love Scotland when you visit Sarah. Thanks for allowing me the oppertunity to guest post on your fantastic blog.

  5. I went to check out Ryan's blog, but it no longer seems to exist.

    1. I sent Ryan a Twitter message asking him. I will post back here when I get the answer. THanks for letting me know.