The following is an excerpt from my book: Dublin Street, about my university experiences in Edinburgh and London.
I picked this particular section on Beltane because it evokes the unique character of Edinburgh and how a city adapts it’s historical traditions into the modern city fabric.
Other city celebrations scattered throughout the year include Burn’s Night (traditionally celebrated with a haggis dinner and readings of the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns), Samhain (from which we derive our Halloween), Guy Fawkes Day, and Hogmanay (New Years shindig, believed to be Viking in its origin). Most of them involve gunpowder…a lot of gunpowder.
What’s a university without a good pagan festival? Every spring the Edinburgh would celebrate Beltane, it was meant to signal the transition between seasons and had something to do with fertility. For students it generally meant the end of our exam period just a good a reason as any to assemble atop Calton Hill.
The rituals began at sunset but being in such northern climbs it pretty much coincided with what otherwise would have been a pre-game. We would make the climb slightly before the sunset to scope out a great piece of grass to swig whiskey and picnic before the Red Men arrived with the May Queen and her handmaidens. The Red Men would storm atop the hill in total clamoring unscripted chaos, jumping amongst the crowds waving torches and flaming batons. They set aside their humanness for the night and became something entirely different, the court of Titania.
We would jump on benches with them and chase them around the Monuments. They would steal our whiskey. We would steal it back. They would pull our hair and clothes as if they’d never seen the likes of us before and we would laugh taking it all in. The Red Men were tasked with clearing the way for the court. The Queen’s court all wore simple white dresses and their expressions and makeup had the opacity and composure of Noh-masks. The Queen always the most graceful with the most elaborate feather and flower headdresses would preside serenely at the head of the procession. The procession took ages and ages to reach the summit. There an effigy of a Phoenix at the top would be burnt to welcome the transition between seasons. And there was even a haggis food truck, in case you ever actually needed a haggis food truck.
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