Beltane: Out of the long dark spell comes new beginnings on Calton Hill

The Celtic celebration of fire, new life and purity – which traditionally marked the end of the long, dark season – will unfold on Calton Hill on Saturday for the first time since 2019.

Rosa Mackay, who takes on the role of the May Queen, the female figurehead of the night, said the return of the celebration, which can attract up to 10,000 people, felt “joyous”.

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Ms Mackay said: “I am feeling really excited about it and it is amazing to be back in person. Beltane is a celebration of the coming of summer and this year we are also seeing this transition out of this intense time of isolation. It’s a joyous time.

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“We are really revealing being back together again and to be celebrating something really meaningful.

“Right now there is just this electric atmosphere around the preparations. I always think of Edinburgh in the run up to Beltane as a hive of activity.

“There are lots of different groups working away, spending time outside, creating everything from 10ft high sculptures to elaborate costumes.”

The Beltane Fire Festival will return to Calton Hill on Saturday for the first time since 2019. PIC: Gordon Veitch for Beltane Fire Society.

Ms Mackay’s own costume will be a traditional-style May Day dress in white and earthy tones, with hands embroidered across the front.

The hands symbolize a number of themes which have affected women through time, from the ‘grabbing’ of reproductive rights to the persecution of women accused of being witches in Scotland between the 16th and 18th Century, who have now received a national apology from the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon following a campaign.

Calton Hill blazes with fire on Beltane as flaming torches, fire sculptures and a bonfire transform the skyline. All are lit in the deepest Beltane tradition of neid-fire, the sacred flame which is lit by friction alone.

Ms Mackay said: “On the night, the moment the May Queen rises up on the National Monument as the neid fire is being lit harks back to the oldest Beltane traditions”

Rosa MacKay will take on the role of May Queen at this year’s Beltane on Calton Hill on Saturday. PIC: Duncan Reddish.

On Calton Hill, the fire is started by hand with a bow, a hazel spindle, and a pine hearth board with friction used to light the kindling.

A smouldering ember is then spun through the air to help it catch alight, with all the other fire on Calton Hill lit using this special flame.

Accounts from the late 1700s suggest Beltane was celebrated in a series of “extraordinary ceremonies” across the Highlands up until the late 17th Century.

On Skye, Mull and Tiree, up to 27 people were deployed to light the neid fire, which would not take if any were guilty of murder, adultery, theft or other series of crimes.

According to a late 18th Century account by John Ramsay, laird of Ochertyre, near Crieff, a species of agaric from old birch trees was added to the spark to intensify the flame.

“This fire had the appearance of being immediately derived from heaven, and manifold were the virtues ascribed to it.

“They esteemed it a preservative against witchcraft, and a sovereign remedy against malignant diseases, both in the human species and in cattle, and by it the strongest poisons were supposed to have their nature changed,” Ramsay wrote.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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