Forget about Halloween trick or treating, Edinburgh’s Samhuinn Fire Festival is the real deal. Come half past eight on All Hallows’ Eve we had secured our spot on the steps of St Giles Cathedral overlooking the stage on Parliament Square. Praying that the rain would hold off, the air was heady with excitement and the smell of lighter fuel as over 6000 people jostled for the best position.
Then, as the hour struck, we heard the faint rumble of drums as the twin columns of drummers, dancers and acrobats set out from Castle Hill above us and the Tron below. The pulsating rhythm of the massed raven masked drummers grew ever louder as the processions approached the square. Dancers, some in elaborate costumes and controlling puppets and others, despite the raw Edinburgh night, wearing little more than red or blue body paint, cavorted before the crowds lining the Royal Mile, before snaking their way towards the stage.
As fireworks erupted above, the stage the fire dancers leapt into action, performing amazing athletic feats to the hypnotic pounding of the drums. We watched in silent awe as Cailleach (a representation of the Celtic Goddess or Divine Hag) oversaw the annual battle between the Kings of Summer and Winter, supported by their respective courts. This passionate enactment of the year’s death and rebirth has to be the greatest show in town for Halloween and it’s all completely free thanks to the efforts of the Beltane Fire Society.
All the participants are volunteers, as are all the backroom people who help to make this and the larger Beltane Fire Festival held on Calton Hill in the Spring, happen. Both events had their origin in 1988 when a group of enthusiasts including the industrial music group Test Department and the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies got together to devise a modern celebration of the pagan festivals of Beltane and Samhuinn. There are at present about 300 active participants, many of them students at Edinburgh University. The Beltane Fire Society is community arts performance charity.
To find out more about Edinburgh’s pagan fire festivals visit the Beltane Fire Society.
Feature by Simon Ball
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