When it comes to big, wild gatherings, Edinburgh is best known for the Fringe Festival, that month long revel dedicated to art, music and drama. There is a much older, if lesser-known, festival however, that's an equally spectacular event – the Beltane Fire Festival.
The Beltane Fire Festival marks the dawn of summer and the end of frost with bonfires, feasting and rituals meant to appease the aos si – fairy folk who are significantly more bloodthirsty than the ones you find in most modern fairytales.
Along with holidays like Samhuinn, Imbolc and Lùnastal, Beltane was one of the most important, sacred days of the year. Today, this homage to an ancient Celtic holy day once celebrated throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man still takes place annually on the 1st of May, or the next closest weekend night.
The ritual of Beltane
The modern Beltaners, as the members of the Fire Society are affectionately known, have taken these elements and run with them, creating a wild, vivid event that mingles historic Scottish folk practices, reconstructed Celtic ritual and very modern dance, music and acrobatics. Performers – sometimes appearing naked except body paint, others in elaborate and sometimes frightening costumes – are joined by large, lewd puppets piloted by equally lascivious dancers.
While the actors and details of the celebration are a little different every year, one thing's for sure. Beltane Fire Festival is not for the faint of heart or easily scandalized.
The festival begins on Calton Hill with a horn hunting call. Flaming sculptures are lit on the edges of the National Monument of Scotland, Edinburgh's half-finished imitation of the Greek Parthenon. The May Queen emerges amidst the firey glow, her face and body painted an ethereal white and clad in an elaborate white dress covered in flowers. She leads a procession slowly around the hill, a path which symbolizes the passage of the season as she encounters performers who embody aspects of the natural world.
In addition to the flaming sculptures, bonfires are lit all over Carlton Hill to the entrancing soundtrack of rhythmic drumming. Once the procession is over the performers scatter, giving smaller, more intimate performances and often interacting directly with the crowd of thousands long into the night. It's not unusual to close the festivities off with an impromptu procession made of performers and spectators alike, marching down the hill to the beat of a few indefatigable drummers.
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Where to eat at Beltane Fire Festival
Feasting was an important part of the historic Beltane festivals, and while there's no official meal included in tickets to Beltane Fire Festival, there are always multiple, tasty food trucks on site. Ranging from big pots of fragrant chili to a traditional fish supper with chippy sauce.
No alcohol is available on site, though, so if you want to drink during the festival you'll need to buy it beforehand (and remember no glass is allowed). Fortunately Edinburgh has a number of specialty alcohol stores, including the Scotch Whiskey Experience on the Royal Mile and numerous smaller artisan shops in the Grassmarket and other shopping districts. Mead is a particularly appropriate choice that was enjoyed by the ancient Celts and would have been drunk at Beltane celebrations.
If you're looking for a sit down meal before attending the Fire Festival then you have a larger range of options. At the top of your price range is The Witchery, just a twenty minute walk from Calton Hill. Named in honor of the many accused witches executed in front of this old merchant's home by gates to Edinburgh Castle, The Witchery is a delightfully gothic restaurant decked out with dark wood, candles and a secret garden room. The menu features local seasonal produce, including venison and scallops, and if you're willing to eat before six you can even snag two courses for only £25.
Another option is Ciao Roma on Southbridge, which sells award winning ice cream in classic and inventive flavors. Or head to Howie's on Waterloo Place which provides traditional Scottish food at a reasonable price, and the inventively named Holyrood 9A on Holyrood Road, which serves gourmet burgers and other pub grub.
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Where to stay for Beltane Fire Festival
Accommodations in Edinburgh run the gamut from expensive luxury in the Balmoral to humble travel lodges. Some of the most affordable places to stay near Calton Hill are the Adagio Apartments, the Southside Guest House and several locations of the Ibis chain. The Adagio Apartments, equipped with a kitchenette and washing machine, are a particularly good choice if you're traveling with a group and intend to be there for several days beyond Beltane Fire Festival.
One thing to be mindful of is that Edinburgh is one of the many historic cities where landlords are turning formerly residential properties into permanent AirBnB's, creating a housing shortage and driving long term residents out of the city. While the price and convenience of AirBnB may be tempting the majority of locals would prefer that you stay in a more traditional venue. If you can't find accommodation in Edinburgh proper, Glasgow is only 50 mins away by commuter train and well worth seeing in its own right.
With six to twelve thousand people typically in attendance, it never hurts to plan your visit well ahead of time. If you can't make it in 2020, there's always next year. After all, the Beltane Fire Festival has been part of Edinburgh's cultural landscape now for over thirty years, honoring thousands of years of ritual, magic, and rebirth.