Finally I’m back to doing shit, and this last weekend marked the Beltane Fire Festival. This is meant to be an ancient Gaelic festival marking the start of Summer, brought together by fire, drama, and hippies all on a hill.
I first came across this society in the city where they were doing some kind of exposition to convince people to come watch. A large group of mainly young people, clad in red and black, formed a troupe of performers. Half were tireless drummers taking orders from the dude in front insisting on more cowbell. The other were bat-shit crazy dancers, hell-bent on making tourists uncomfortable and wonder why such a large group would take narcotics that early in the morning. But it was all good fun and we were sold.
Being someone with such a poor sense of direction, as well as having little patience for other people’s shit, chaos was sure to ensue. So, I’ve split this post into the sections of the festival found on the programme. On the evening, programmes were scarce and of little help seeing that they didn’t run according to them anyway. They were also seemingly exclusive to Spanish tourists. So to try find out what was happening, you needed to find people who had the guide (who couldn’t read English), to read the guide (that you couldn’t see in the dark), to point out places (that you weren’t familiar with), according to the times (that they didn’t follow).
Gates to Calton Hill open
To save a whole £1.50, I’d booked tickets for my cousin and me, so we were able to enter a different gate and hopefully avoid long lines. But, being Britain, it can’t be an event without a good queue and we stood in line for this ancient, earthly festival like modern, obedient androids. I’ve never known a nation to be proud of being good at queuing, or even what that meant. How can one be good at standing in a line and waiting? Is it because the weather is so inconsistent that small-talk becomes easy? Have you got your tuts all loaded for queue-skippers? Or perhaps it was just a knock-on effect from their rugby teams, where line-breaks are absent or rare.
We attracted some attention from the couple in front of us when I swore loudly at my cousin for being on Instagram. The old chap seemed to like this idea and got chatting to us. Then he did what every local did when they tried to place our accents, he guessed wrong. No we are not fucking Australian. No we are not Kiwis. Having only one guess left in the SANZAR nations you’d think it would be third time the charm, but no luck. His wife, whose accent was so thick I needed a few retakes, said we sounded Welsh. I don’t know if you’ve ever met anyone from Wales, but it is a far cheerier and flowing accent to ours. To have a Welsh accent is to be politely, but happily, in the middle of a point as if to be breaking into song. To have a South African accent to have short bursts of emphasis, prioritising or plosives and abusing our vowles (say “Hey? Ja, he’s going to kak if he puts that muti on his stupid arse” out loud with animation).
But they were nice enough to share a conversation and speak about South African shit. The guy said I should go to Glasgow, since they have Nelson Mandela square. I reminded him that I am from South Africa, where we had Nelson Mandela the person, and that was a bit more special. The conversation then took its next inevitable turn where they wanted us to say “fokken prawn”. Which we did. As stellar as our chat had been, all the talk of prawns and Wales had made me hungry, and thus thirsty. I saw people walking in with 4 packs of beer and had forgotten that public drinking was fine here. I left the line to get some beer, walking past hundreds of people like an under-age kid who had been bounced from a club.
The beer run was uneventful other than me bumping into a South African chick in Tesco who was buying box wine. Of course. I have to go the long way up and finally finish the trek to Calton Hill. This is an epic evening viewpoint of the city, and thanks to the late sunset, we were able to see it just as the lights from the many buildings began to illuminate the changing sky. The hill had a panoramic view of the city on one side, and a whole bunch of buildings on the other. Large clock towers, old observatories and a columned arch, known officially as the Acropolis, and unofficially as the “embarrassment of Edinburgh” as it was intended to be a large sort of Roman forum area, but didn’t make it past the facade. The hill is uneven, and had various areas marked off where shit was meant to go down. It had a music-festival vibe to it, but no music. Yet. Most people faced the column facade and we joined in for the gees.
Neid Fire is lit on the Acropolis and May Queen is revealed
Finally some action. Faint beats begin to surface and an assortment of characters appear on stage. On my tip-toes I vaguely make out figures on the steps. A few symbols are set alight between the columns and burn about the characters. There are culty-looking priest guys with different-coloured LEDs in their hoods. A few chaps, painted red and wearing thongs, thrash about the stage. Various blue people. A whole bunch of other people in all white. People holding banners. This is Daft Punk meets American Horror story, with elements of Game of Thrones, a definite Eyes Wide Shut vibe, and a dash of how Dave Grohl looked in the Tribute music video. Then finally, behind them all, the May Queen. She is dressed in all white-with a crown of flowers. But to avoid looking like every other white chick in the crowd, she also has an extension resembling the waxing and waning moon, orbiting around her. Just to keep it Celtic.
The basic narrative is that the May Queen awakes from her winter slumber and brings in Summer. The Green Man is still all Wintery, so the May Queen gathers various things from the earth, hunts him, kills him, and resurrects him as a Summer guy. Like when your mate is still keen to go out, but he gets that girlfriend that’s over it and she forces him to grow up and watch TV rather than meet up with his mates. Anyway, they make a procession around the hill . Sort of like RAG back home, but it hasn’t been meddled with by a university, so it’s still a bit fun.
This betty is clearly in charge and has an entourage of all sorts of people, of varying interest and ability. First are the all-white people. They are her immediate guard and travel quite close to her. All the actors are pretty good and keep deadpan faces. Around them are the red people. These guys have gone all out. They’ve painted their whole bodies red and managed to run around and pretend to be crazy the whole evening. Best part about them is that they, guys and girls, are only allowed to wear material thongs, so it was tits out for the boys. Finally equality done right. I can’t emphasise enough how this group kept the gees up the whole evening, and being on a hill in Scotland at night can get pretty cold. They made up quite a few of the drummers, who didn’t stop or miss a beat for hours. Next are various levels of blue people. Some have capes, some sticks, some bright orange reflective vests, presumably in case the procession had to reverse out of somewhere. The caped chaps were all a bit older, like these were the guys that had done their time being red people. But, quite a lot of these were poorly done. They broke character often, and I could see them yawning and talking to each other. Finally, the blue people in their reflective jackets were the worst. I assumed they had to do some crowd-control and in a moving act this was surely not too easy. But to me you’re either part of the act or not. Often, I felt they just got in the way, didn’t pretend to be in the act at all, messed up the photos and generally made it a bit shit.
Procession arrives at Fire Arch
We don’t know where the fire arch is, or even what the fire arch is, so we head off. Being somewhat vertically-challenged, I struggled to catch most of the opening act, so we try head off to a demarcated area to actually get a view. We arrive at an empty stage and try to figure out what’s going on. It’s here we see our first glimpse of the programme and foolishly think it would help us.
Darkness fell and the event reminded me of two distinct events I’d been to before: Oppikoppi and Guy Fawkes. The crowds, flowing booze, smell of weed, and pushing to the front in the dark made it very Oppish, while the constant smell of petrol and burning was a bit Guy Fawkesier. At Oppi, even with my height, I would usually eventually get a good view or have an idea what was going on. Granted the hill was uneven, but to get a view of the procession was impossible as a huge crowd followed it, and a very little could be made out a few rows back. As for Guy Fawkes, there was a big-ass bonfire, but no fireworks. This sucked, because they would have been an easily-viewable spectacle, but was nice because it meant we didn’t get stupid Facebook posts from people bitching about their pets.
Procession arrives at Air Point
We struggled to find any point in this festival, and tried to amble around to the side-shows that went on away from the procession. They were all a bit shit, and were clearly given to people who didn’t crack nod to be red or white people. Some doos fucks around with long sparklers. Lame. We head off to a place with luminescent mushrooms because they look groovy and see the first example of a blue chick unable to keep in character while helping people out. Although she was quite helpful. We try more Spaniards with a programme. No help. So we head to another nearby stage.
Procession arrives at Water Point
I was unaware that the procession was headed to the water point, but I must have had some kind of telekinetic link, because I too needed a piss. It was an outdoor festival, so porta-potties came standard. Since the crowd was fairly spread out, I headed toward the potties so I could go past them and piss in the bushes. I thought this to be a norm. But to my shock and horror, in a dark bushy corner that was just ripe for some piss, there was another dude with a reflective jacket and a torch, warding good folk like me off. To me, this seemed counter-productive to crowd control, because now we just had to pollute yet another queue, this time to the toilet.
We formed semi lines outside each stall, and you had to gamble which was which. Unbeknown to myself, I had clearly picked the take a shit line, and the evening became less and less pleasant. I don’t know what they were doing in there, but all you could see was the shine of phone lights illuminating the roofs of the stalls. I had no battery and no time for such things. I was halfway through my beers and in no mood to fanny about. A worried chick crept out of the stall in front of me. My time finally came and I burst onto the scene. I knew how these things worked, so I located the target in the dark and moved quickly about my business of evacuation. However, mid-piss I realised that the toilet was not quite making the usual sound that it did, sort of a hollow resonance, even in these plastic things. I had been going for some time, but this still bugged me. Still peeing, I got some toilet paper in my hand and reached toward the black mass I had been watering. I had expected to lift one of those plastic U-shaped toilet seats, but this felt heavier. O shit. The chick before me had put the lid down. Who puts the lid down in such a frantic line for the toilet? In the dark no less. I now lift the lid and hear something more familiar, although it is staggered as I am now literally pissing myself laughing. Although this meant I had ricochet some urine onto my shins, this problem was negligible compared to what the girl after me was about to face. I finished up, composed myself, flushed (because I appreciate irony) and stepped out, high-tailing it back up and around the hill before the chick could turn on her iPhone light, see what lay before her and possibly drown.
Procession arrives at Earth Point
Some blue people dance around while a guy plays the fiddle. It’s m’kay. Man is fiddling harder than a van driver at the Museum of Childhood. We try go back to the Acropolis where it all started as things seem to be going down there again. We get a handful of crazies, only to be out-crazied by the crowd. Various members try to be part of it by shouting at the performers. Some doos thinks he’s funny and does the Dr Zoidberg noise from Futurama. This echoes through to other dooses, clearly not able to enjoy something without linking it to TV. Some hippie chick is off her tits and overwhelmed by “how great everyone’s energy is”. You guessed it, with a flower crown.
Procession arrives at Fire Point, Reds charge at Whites
Can’t tell you what fire point was, they all kind of looked like fire points to me. The Reds haven’t done too well since Jake White left, so we probably didn’t miss much. We were pretty disappointed at this stage, and not convinced it was worth ten pounds. We see movement in the distance and we crowd around an old cannon.
Procession arrives at Red Slope, Reds and Beasties perform
Finally, we get a decent view of what’s cracking. The general parade walks past in the distance, while the red people have some fun on the phallic cannon. They’re still going at it and I’d wonder if they haven’t frozen their tits off, if I hadn’t been able to see first hand that they had not. There are some hotties in the amongst them, and many guys in the crowd become suddenly incredibly cultured. The drummers carry on, dragging their drums along with them.
Procession arrives at the stage for Green Man’s death and rebirth
Bonfire is lit by May Queen while other performances continue at the stage
Game time. There is a slight embankment and we are able to see this stage. This was lucky as this area was clearly crucial to the plot. The show had reached its climax. Red dudes surrounded the stage while the All-Whites went up with the May Queen and the Green Man. The drum tempo increases. All the white folk start grabbing the Green Dude. He’s fucked. We all know the May Queen is meant to kill him, but the white people pin him on his back with his arms against the ground. It looks like the Zapiro cartoon with Zuma and lady justice and I sober up. Shit just got real. It starts to go dark and the white okes are tearing leaves off of the Green Dude. It’s getting all but too rapey when the music stops. Fade to black. Green Dude is dead. People cheer. I find this odd, since not only are we cheering a murder, but seeing that he’s the only green guy I think this is genocide too. But it’s all been done to a guy, so I suppose it doesn’t matter these days. I’m still trying to count the amount of crimes, implied or otherwise, that went down when next thing the Green Dude is up. He looks a little different in his rebirth, having had leaves seasonally stripped off of him. He’s content and checking the May Queen in the eye. Just when you think he’s about to bust a cap in this bitch’s ass – boom. He pulls into the Queen. Mother-fucker. Now pulling into the Queen in the UK is not usually something you want to do, May is quite fresh and this chap is not holding back. Good on him.
Reds and Whites dance at Bower
Having finally seen some stuff, the night is getting more worth it. We race off to the Bower where the thing is meant to end. There’s a chapel in the distance so we think we got it right. I’m next to Americans, which is never ideal, but I feel I have a fair view of what’s to come. The whole show comes past and everyone rejoices. The May Queen and her Green dude come past, hand in hand. The Queen looks a little different too, like a bit of green in her outfit, not to mention the green around her mouth. Followed by the All-Whites, and the red people, still going berserk. The blue people, in their various forms, and then the reflectors. They all gather in the Bower. More symbols set on fire. They all dance together. The reflectors get in the way. They lower some ropes to allow us to get closer, only for them to realise this allows tourists to get too close to the fire and they have to send us back. The dancers let some people viewers join in on the fun. I can’t see because the reflectors are offering each other food.
It’s all rather quaint but I finally realise the horns on the green Dude’s head. The poor chap didn’t seem to have done any Shakespeare and doesn’t know that this is the sign of the cuckold. The May Queen is clearly cheating on him with the Festival Season. But let’s give them the honeymoon why don’t we.
We start the walk back home, not before stopping at a chippie and seeing all the club-goers fall in and wait for chips.
I’d say the festival was worth going, and there was clearly a lot of work put into making it happen. I have my experience of jumping through bureaucratic hoops, and I can only imagine how much worse it is there. I feel many of the performers could have been more professional. But my biggest criticism is not being able to see. This was also true of my cousin, who’s on the other side of the height spectrum. All in all, worth making and worth going too, but wouldn’t do it again in a hurry.
Rabbit out (groundhog impression)