If you’re not sure what Beltane is, then you probably didn’t get up extra early this morning, walk up the nearest hill and wash your face in the dew as dawn was breaking! If you’re wondering why anyone would be tempted to do such a thing, well it’s just one of the many customs that would traditionally have taken place on the 1st May and in some places still does.
Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival day and was traditionally celebrated throughout Scotland at the beginning of May. In the past it was linked to the agricultural cycles of the year and marked the beginning of summer. It was a time of celebration and the return of the fertility of the land, when cattle were put out to summer pasture. A time to throw off the darkness of winter and welcome the new season of light and fertility. Naturally with this in mind in the past it was also a popular time for young couples to start courting too.
Nowadays most of the customs associated with Beltane no longer take place, but in 1988 in Edinburgh the Beltane Fire Festival was started, as a revival and reinterpretation of the ancient Iron Age Celtic ritual. It takes place on Calton Hill on the evening before Beltane with the lighting of a huge fire to mark the start of summer. It’s the biggest festival of its kind and last year around 8000 people watched and joined in with the exuberant festivities. Sadly of course this year with the ongoing restrictions it was cancelled, but if you plan to come to Edinburgh next year, why not think about arriving in time for Beltane and enjoy a festival with a difference.
The name Beltane is usually translated as ‘bright fire’. In Gaelic ‘teine’ is the word for fire, so named because this was predominantly a fire festival. In traditional celebrations, bonfires were often lit on hilltops so they could be widely seen and in early times processions wound their way to the top in a clockwise direction. Sunwise (clockwise) or ‘deiseal’ in Gaelic was always thought to bring good luck.
In the Highlands, the hearth fires in every farming village cottage were all put out before a special fire called a neid-fire was lit. This one spiritual fire was seen as both purifying and healing. It was often made through the joint efforts of either a chosen few or a larger group of villagers, using traditional methods of friction of wood to create heat and then flame. No use of iron, flint or steel was allowed. Since all the fires locally had been put out it was crucial for everyone in the community that the neid-fire started.
After the Beltane ceremonies had taken place, villagers would light pieces of wood or peat from the neid-fire to take back home. They’d walk around their land and homes clockwise in an act of purification, protection and blessing before going inside to rekindle their own fires. With this fire they ensured prosperity, health, fertility and crops for the coming year. In addition, all the local people were connected through their own home fires to the one sacred neid-fire.
Traditionally cattle passed between 2 fires at Beltane in a ceremony of cleansing and protection. The fires often included burning juniper which acted as natural, medicinal antiseptic fumigation.
Beltane was also of course a time for feasting and special foods were made and eaten. In some places young men were involved in cooking a type of custard and also baking a large special Beltane bannock (type of oatcake). This was marked into portions enough for all the young men. One portion was blackened on the bottom with charcoal from the fire and then the whole bannock was broken into pieces. The young men were blindfolded and then they had to pick a piece of bannock from a bag or a bonnet. Whoever picked the blackened portion then had to jump over the fire 3 times. The number 3 was particularly important and significant in many rituals and ceremonies in the Highlands.
The first water drawn out of holy wells all around Scotland on Beltane were said to have particularly special powers, giving good health throughout the year to those that drank or were blessed with it.
Other Beltane customs included ‘maying’ which was going out, sometimes to nearby woods, to collect greenery and flowers for decoration, which could also involve a bit of flirting and romance! Yellow flowers were popular as they represented the flames of the Beltane fire.
So we come back to the custom of getting up early on Beltane to hike up a nearby hill and wash your face in the dawn dew.
In Edinburgh local people would walk to the top of Arthur’s Seat to greet the sunrise on 1st May and surprisingly people still do. (Complying with the lockdown restrictions today). Over the last few decades the numbers involved have definitely declined, from around 2,000 people in the 1960s, to 300 in the late 1980s and now far fewer in the last couple of years. And of those that make the effort, how many remembered to wash their faces in the dew as the sun rose? This wasn’t just an Edinburgh tradition, but part of an age-old custom with its roots in ancient times carried out throughout Scotland as part of the festivities.
And the reason why they did and still do it? It was because it was believed the dawn dew on this day would ensure your complexion remained youthful, beautiful and fresh. I’m beginning to wish I’d made the effort years ago…..but never mind there’s always next year! So bring your hiking boots to Edinburgh and I’ll see you at the top of Arthur’s Seat next Beltane!