Celtic Festival of Beltane

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 3 comments

Today is Beltane, one of the most important days in the Scottish pre-Christian calendar. It is a day steeped in mystery, when fires were built, offerings made and rituals enacted. There has been a rekindling of interest in Beltane in the last decade with a resurgence of contemporary festivals celebrating the occasion with reinterpretations of tradition instead of recreations of past rites.

As we shall see this is probably a very good thing. It’s easy to question the validity of contemporary celebrations but I would rather view them as part of a constant evolution of tradition. The Beltane that the Romans documented when they invaded Britain bears little resemblance to that practiced in rural Scotland in the 18th century, where the church often reimagined pagan beliefs, and that in turn differs significantly from what we have today. Regardless of authenticity, what is important is that today is a vehicle for remembering what is an integral part of our history as Scots. Today you could be watching the sunrise over Callanish standing stones, washing your face in the morning dew, visiting a holy well or watching fire jugglers atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh; stop and take a moment to reflect on the meaning and importance of what is known in Gaelic as Bealltainn or bright fire.

Fire plays an important part in most traditional Beltane rituals, whether that be jumping through the smoke, driving cattle through two fires or counterclockwise round one fire to purify them. It has been argued that this is a festival that is more about animals than crops and it owes its roots to herdsmen as opposed to farmers. With the adoption of aspects of Beltane by the church and the dying out of traditional customs alongside the pastoral Highland life, it is difficult to draw an accurate picture of its origins but what remains in the forms of written records and rituals is indeed fascinating.

In the central Highlands of Scotland bonfires, known as the Beltane fires would be lit by the people of each hamlet on a hill round which their cattle were pasturing. On the morning of May Day the villagers gathered at this hill and cut out a round trench leaving in the center a platform of turf large enough for a pile of wood which was kindled with a ritual fire. The night before, all the fires in the village would have been solemnly extinguished, and the next morning the materials for exciting this sacred fire were prepared carefully.

The fire being lit, the attendees prepared a custard of eggs and milk, which they ate. Afterwards they would amuse themselves singing and dancing around the fire. Then they prepared a cake of oatmeal, which would be cooked over the fire and divided into equal portions only with one piece being burned black. All the pieces would be put into a hat and turns taken to draw one out, with whoever got the black piece being called the Cailleach Bealtaine (more about her later).

It is here that things take a slightly dark turn, especially if you consider this was still a common occurrence right into the 19th century. The unfortunate Cailleach would be set upon by the rest of the group when they would mimic throwing him or her onto the fire, pretend to butcher them and speak of them as if they were dead.

What seems a simple game is actually an embodiment of a memory of when this would have happened for real. Various sources around the time of the Roman invasion document the northerners proclivity for human sacrifice and accounts of that era tell of festivities not dissimilar to that what happens in the infamous Scottish horror film, The Wicker Man, in which a sacrificial victim is burned alive on a massive fire. (This film also took place on Beltane lest you forget). A final word on this comes from Lindow Man, a Celt from early Roman times found in a state of near-perfect preservation in a peat bog in 1984. A modern autopsy revealed he had been strangled, bludgeoned and stabbed. What was found in his stomach, a single piece of burnt bannock.

Another tradition in the Highlands of Scotland was a tradition known as burning the witches. Young men would take bits of flaming material on pitchforks into the fields and run through them yelling “Fire! Fire! Burn the witches!”.  The object was to protect crops and livestock from the spells of malignant sorcerers who would steal the fertility of crops and cattle. The fire was scattered in the fields to flush out any evil spirits that might be waiting in the shape of hares or other animals to steal the fertility of the fields as summer returned. On a practical level this would indeed increase the fertility of fields by burning off old growth but there is no doubt some would prefer the esoteric explanation.

In the Hebrides, tradition would be to bake Beltane cakes or bannocks, perhaps made of the grain of the sacred last sheaf from the previous harvest, and therefore sacramental in character. Instead of being round, these were often made flat with a hole in the centre. To ensure a good supply of milk for the coming year the cow would be milked through the hole in the bannock. The yellow marsh marigolds that bloom around this time give the day its original Gaelic name Latha Buidhe Bealltainn – the yellow day of Beltane. These would be used as decoration and tied to the tails of the cattle and horses to bring good fortune for the coming season.

There is one curious Beltane tradition that time has not altered. Recognised as the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual in Europe, the moving of The Cailleach of Glen Lyon is a unique and unbroken connection to our Celtic ancestors. Deep in a glen in rural Perthshire, far from any human habitation, is a modest stone hut that is home to a family of weathered rocks with vaguely human forms. These represent The Cailleach or mother goddess, her husband and children. Every year for centuries on Beltane they are taken from their house where they have been since the previous Samhain (Halloween) and are placed outside facing down the glen. The genesis of this is not completely proven but one explanation that ties in with the theory that this was primarily a festival for herdsmen is that the timing coincides with the annual migration of Highland cattle to and from their summer shielings.

Whatever your plans are for today (and I hope they do not involve human sacrifice) spare a thought for the way of life of the rural poor back in the day. It could be a hard existence, but a community gathering round a fire was a social as much as a religious thing and it was by its very nature a day of optimism. If we take nothing else from this day then we should at least use it the same way as they did, to welcome the start of the summer.

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Comments (3)
  1. Nancy Orr says:

    Fascinating history. thank you!

  2. Lynette says:

    Thanks very informative

  3. Ruth Manning says:

    What fantastic history …..even though I am an Aussie,.my heritage is of Scotland and I read and explore as much about the history as I can find.
    Thank you for this snippet of Scottish times that I will save for reference in my history pages…..fascinating..🇦🇺🇦🇺🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

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