Summer in Edinburgh, Scotland, kicks off with an evening of whimsical revelry. Colorful characters parade atop a hill, dancing and marching to the beat of pounding drums. Fires blaze, warming the air with their bright, smoky flames.
Every April 30, the Beltane Fire Society puts on a spectacular show to celebrate the start of summer. Thousands of pagans, hippies, tourists, and curious locals gather to witness the wonderful wedding procession of the May Queen and Green Man, who herald the new season in the Celtic calendar.
The Beltane Fire Festival is a modern, revived version of an ancient Celtic tradition. It was resurrected in 1988, and is now the largest fire festival of its kind. Beltane was originally an agricultural affair—complete with cattle being herded between bonfires for cleansing—but today it’s a joyous night of fiery celebrations, music, and dancing.
Starting from the colonnade, the May Queen leaves with her torchbearers, drummers, and warrior women to meet her consort and proceed through the crowds. Each point of the compass the procession visits is dedicated to one of the four elements, and there will be a performance as they pass through.
At midnight, the lead characters will light a massive bonfire and announce the official start of summer. Some people like to dance naked around the fire and will do so if security is in a mellow mood, so be prepared for that if you are at all sensitive to such sights.
Watch out for Reds, strangely behaving mischief-makers covered in red body paint who will try to break up the wedding party. They may approach you, have a sniff, snarl, hiss, or even try to kiss you! They signify chaos in nature, and at the end of the evening, will be dancing with the May Queen’s attendants.
The Beltane Fire Society organizes other seasonal festivals throughout the year, including Samhuinn (a similar fire festival for All Hallow’s Eve) and Imbolc (Candlemas), both taking place in Holyrood Park; and Lughnasadh in August.
Know Before You Go
Calton Hill is walkable from the Edinburgh City Centre. Alcohol is permitted to toast the wedding, but must be decanted into plastic bottles. These are usually available before entering the park. It's best not to drink too much. There will be portaloos, but the queues can be quite long. It can be quite bewildering as the performance is so large and there is a lot going on. Just follow the drums. Sensible shoes are needed. The hill may not be suitable for those with mobility issues.