This is part 2 of a 3 part series on the Beltane Fire Society, a secular ritual performance and street theater group based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has rekindled public celebration around the Celtic quarter holidays with Pagan-inspired ritual and street theater.
By Rynn Fox, Staff Writer, The Wild Hunt
The Beltane Fire Society began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1988 as the brain-child of musician and artist Angus Farquhar. Though some city residents still maintained the unbroken Beltane tradition of climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a local hill, to greet the sun and wash in dew, Farquhar wanted to revive the holiday as a community celebration.
“The aim was to recreate a sense of community and an appreciation of the cyclical nature of the seasons and our connection to the environment—something that is often overlooked in our modern society and urban environments,” said Board Member Matthew Richardson. This meant rediscovering the traditions surrounding Beltane and other seasonal community festivals.
One of the first people he enlisted was Scottish folklore expert Dr. Margaret Bennett, formerly of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. “[Angus] came to see my colleague, [folk revivalist] Hamish Henderson and me,” said Bennett. “My role was to explain to him about the customs and then Hamish and I agreed to bring our students and to sing and take part. When we arrived we were greeted by the colorful array of key figures, including the May Queen, the Green Man and Red Men and a group of drummers beyond any expectation we might have had.”
Yet what began as a small celebration of around 100 people, including performers, quickly grew due to demand. Samhuinn was added to their festival roster in 1995 with Lughnasadh and Imbolc soon following suit. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the group’s Beltane Fire Festival with around 6,000 attendees and 350 performers taking part.
Sandra Holdom, owner of local Witchcraft store The Wyrd Shop, believes the group’s festivals foster a deeper sense of connection for city residents. “It gives a sense of community and continuity that is sadly lacking in a modern city like Edinburgh. It also draws together disparate aspects of Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, be it Celtic, Nordic, Anglo or North Saxon.”
As to why these events are so popular, Board Member Milk Miruku thinks the event’s popularity is about universality of its narrative.
“It’s a shared time and history of celebration, between the ages, places and people,” said Miruku. “I like the connections that are made between the varying values and influences, the personal and cultural aspects and metaphors that come together to celebrate not just the date but what they associate with that part of the yearly cycle.”
It’s a sentiment Richardson echoes. “[Our] Beltane and Samhuinn [festivals] are ‘all things to all men’ – while they have ties to Celtic traditions and Scottish and Northern European cultures, they also beg, borrow and steal from many others – Scandinavian, Native American, Japanese, African,” said Richardson. “We aren’t seeking to recreate an exact copy of historical events – rather we try to experience the same sense of community and spirituality that inspired those who first celebrated these seasonal transformations, and connect our modern lives back to a sense of nature, the environment and community.”
For Bennett, these types of revival festivals have a significant role in modern society.
“Even though events such as this one are a far cry from the way they were traditionally celebrated, they are important,” said Bennett. “While some of the events, such as the Edinburgh celebration, are presented as theatrical interpretation of tradition rather than a reproduction of the way things were traditionally done. They confirm, however, the genuine human need to celebrate–without celebration life would be humdrum and dull. Celebration confirms life!”
Angus Farquhar could not be reached for comment.
All holiday names are in traditional Scottish-Gaelic spelling as provided by the Beltane Fire Society.