Beltane - Interview with a Drummer

Submitted by edg on Fri, 14 Apr '00 9.00am

With its heady brew of drums, fire, theatre and pagan ritual on the top of Calton Hill, the Beltane Fire Festival, celebrating the arrival of Summer, is one of the most exuberant events in Edinburgh's calendar. But what's it all about? A member of the The Beltane Fire Society, the organisation behind the annual event, explains.

What's your name?
Please just refer to me as a Drummer. Beltane is bigger than any individual, so we prefer to be called by our character names in publicity.

How did you get involved with Beltane and what's the festival mean for you?
Like many of the participants, I first got involved as a spectator. I heard a vague rumour about an amazing festival on Calton Hill so I wandered up with a drum and a few friends to check it out. I caught a bit of the procession and then hooked up with some other drummers and when I stopped it was dawn and I hadn't yet touched the alcohol in my bag. The sheer energy of the event, even on the periphery, blew me away and I knew that I had to get more involved. The next year I went to an open meeting where the narrative and history of the festival was explained and there I was able to join the Red drummers. I have played a percussive role in Beltane and the other quarter-day festivals ever since.

What's your role with the Beltane Fire Society?
I am currently on the Society Committee as the Information Officer. I am also largely responsible for the organisation of fundraising clubs and am performing in this year's event as a processional drummer

What can someone arriving on Calton Hill for the first time expect and how do they get the most out of it?
A first time Beltane spectator may be overwhelmed by the scale of the crowd and the event. Without previous knowledge of the choreography and geography of the procession, many see very little of the organised performance, but there are always small groups in the audience doing their own thing, which provides a unique experience, as I found on my first year. This year there will also be a puppet crew moving through the crowd, and parodying crowd stereotypes, so adding to the atmosphere of the whole hill.

How does the Society prepare for Beltane?
A large amount of effort has to be put into fundraising as the event receives no centralised funding. The committee works year round to apply for grants, organise fundraising club nights, etcetera. In the more immediate term there is a great deal of official procedure to go through to allow us to use the hill. We have to liaise with the Police, the Council, arrange security and medical cover to ensure that the festival is as safe as possible for the spectators. The organisation of specific parts of the event are delegated to Point Organisers who liaise with the committee to ensure the resources necessary for their part.

It's been very crowded in past years on the hill - isn't there a danger that Beltane will suffer from its own popularity?
That is a grave danger, and many would say that it has already happened. Many people who used to come to see the event now find the crowd too claustrophobic and rowdy. Also, the more people who attend, the greater the damage done to the hill and so the greater the effort and expense required on our part to return it to its original state. The cleanup and safety costs increase each year and are one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of the festival as it is now.

The web site says that the Society has begun to celebrate all four of the ancient Celtic Quarter Days - are these on the same scale as Beltane? What do they involve?
The other festivals - Lunasadh, Samhainn and Imbolc are currently created on a much smaller scale than Beltane. Lunasadh (August 20th) was traditionally much more a family celebration and was a time of marriage. Last year the celebrations were very modest and included children's sack races etc. Samhainn, which falls on October 31st, modern-day Halloween, is celebrated with a processional performance passing down from the Castle Esplanade to Parliament Square, where a ritual performance is held to symbolise the passage into winter. Imbolc (Feb 2nd) marks the time of year when the first signs of Spring - lambs being born and seeds germinating. This year was the first that the Society organised an Imbolc festival event. It was again a small-scale family event held at Edinburgh Art College. A living-willow sculpture was created of the Celtic goddess Bridget, to whom the festival was traditionally dedicated. Wishes for the coming year were tied to the sculpture which is now planted and growing in the garden of the Salisbury Centre.

Is Beltane funded just by individual donations?
Beltane doesn't currently receive any centralised funding. We have been successful in a grant application for IT equipment, but not for the running costs of the night itself. Our three sources of funding are donations collected on the night, busking during the weeks leading up to the event and the benefit club on the night itself. We are always looking for new ways of developing fundraising opportunities.

How much does the Society need to put on Beltane each year? What does the funding go toward?
The festival costs £9000-£10,000 to put on. This includes the cost of the cleanup (our largest single expenditure at £3400), the hire of staging, scaffolding and security barriers, transport, paraffin, body-paint, medical cover, professional stewarding and miscellaneous materials for props and costumes.

What is the most positive thing that comes out of the Beltane festival?
Personally I think that that has to be the nature in which so many people from greatly different backgrounds come together to share knowledge and enthusiasms. This applies both to the performers and the spectators, all focused on the single goal of the celebration of the changing seasons and to ensure the good fortune of the community as a whole.