Beltane Fire Society: my experience so far

Over the five years (oh god, has it really been five years already?) since I set up this blog, I’ve posted about most areas of my life at one time or another. I’ve written entries about my travels, my paid work, my geeky personal projects, my wedding, my slightly mad group of film making friends, my political views, my band, Scottish Country Dancing, mental health, and various other random topics. And I’ve written so much about urban exploration that I created a whole other blog just about that!

But I realised there was one notable omission: I’ve never written about Beltane Fire Society until now. That wasn’t a deliberate decision; it was really just that when I joined the society in 2014, this blog was going through something of an unintended hiatus (looking back, I only made three posts that whole year, and even one of those wasn’t really a proper post!), so I wasn’t in the habit of writing about stuff. I decided that now, having just done my fifth festival with them, would be a good time to put that right.

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Photo by Martin Robertson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence

Beltane Fire Society, for those that don’t know, is something of an institution in Edinburgh. It’s the group that puts on the spectacular Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill at the end of April every year, as well as the Samhuinn parade down the Royal Mile (usually) on Hallowe’en. These events have been running for decades now, but my first encounter with them was when I went to see Beltane a few years ago, because one of my dancing friends was taking part in it. I loved the atmosphere and the spectacle of it right from the start and went back the two following years as well.

(Beltane and Samhuinn are two of the quarter year festivals of the Pagan calendar. Although there are Pagans in the society, there are plenty of people of other religions or no religion as well).

I decided I wanted to take part in Beltane, and in 2014 I finally got around to it. BFS isn’t a monolithic organisation. The tasks of running each festival are delegated to various groups within the society, which are quite fluid and change frequently. In addition to the very visible performance groups (the Reds and Whites and so on), there are also several less visible (but no less important) production groups dedicated to making sure everything runs smoothly and safely. Like a lot of newbies to the society, I started off in one of those groups: the Stewards.

The Beltane 2014 stewards, up on the hill waiting for the excitement to start

The Beltane 2014 stewards, up on the hill waiting for the excitement to start

Stewarding didn’t really come naturally to me, but that was actually one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I thought that learning how to talk to the audience members and deal with whatever situations might arise would be good for my confidence, and I think it was. Although I was still quite nervous when the night came, it all went smoothly and I had a great time. The public were overwhelmingly good natured and the worst that I had to deal with was one man who refused to move out of a performance space until I’d taken one of the After Eight mints he was offering me! I also got a far better view of the whole festival than I’d ever had as an audience member.

I stewarded for two more festivals following the first one. Both were more challenging for various reasons (the first because it was on a Saturday night so the crowds were huge, the second because I had to extinguish a stray torch ball, something which thankfully doesn’t happen very often), but I still enjoyed myself.

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Photo by Martin Robertson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence

Being a steward was described to me by an experienced BFS member as a Beltane “gateway drug”, and I can see what he meant… the more I watched the other groups with their colourful costumes and mesmerising flames up close, the more tempted I was to join them. For Beltane this year, I finally made the leap and joined the Torchbearers.

The Torchbearers (Torchies to their friends) are the cloaked figures that walk solemnly alongside the procession at both Beltane and Samhuinn holding burning torches. They seemed a natural group for me to gravitate towards, since looking serious and ignoring everyone is pretty much my default behaviour in public places anyway. But also, I was looking forward to having some involvement with fire other than putting it out when it spread to places it shouldn’t. (Plus, the fact that the torches are fuelled by parafin-soaked balls of cotton gives the potential for all sorts of ball jokes).

The run up to the festival didn’t go quite as I’d planned, since I caught the worst flu I’ve ever had in my life and was stuck in bed for two weeks and could hardly speak for another two. But by Beltane night, all that was forgotten and I think it was probably my favourite BFS event so far – the view of the huge crowd and the other performers down below as I came up onto the Acropolis with my torch was so breathtaking that it was all I could do to stop myself grinning with delight and gazing around in wonder, which wouldn’t have been very in-character.

All painted and costumed up and ready to go for my first time as a Torchbearer

All painted and costumed up and ready to go for my first time as a Torchbearer

I returned to the Torchbearers for the Samhuinn that’s just passed. This time the costumes were more elaborate and, after a few false starts, I learned how to use a sewing machine and made myself a very nice red and green cloak. (Though unfortunately, given the weather on the night, it wasn’t a very waterproof cloak!).

But what really defines the Beltane Fire Society is the amazing, very welcoming community behind it, and that, more than the fire and face paint and cloaks, is what’s made me keep going back. As well as the public festivals there are always numerous social events going on behind the scenes that I wish I had more time and energy for. If you’re thinking about giving it a go yourself, I’d strongly encourage you to just go for it. I’m very glad I did.

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