19 pictures of how Edinburgh celebrated May Day in years gone by, including washing your face in the dew

May Day is a traditional time for celebration, whether it’s washing your face in the dew, going to a service on top of Arthur’s Seat, marching through the city centre or welcoming summer at the Beltane fire festival.

Getting up before dawn and climbing up Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill or Blackford Hill may not be everyone’s idea of how to celebrate, but traditionally that was what thousands of people, mostly young women, would do each year on May 1 so they could take part in the ancient rite of washing their faces in the dew.

The May dew was seen by the druids as “holy water” and sprinkling it on yourself was meant to bring vitality, beauty and good fortune for the rest of the year.

An Evening News report from 1968 talks of 2,000 people making the early morning pilgrimage up Arthur’s Seat, but another report in 1987 revealed numbers had dwindled to 300 –though that might have been partly due to the rain that day. While they were up Arthur’s Seat, they could also join in a dawn service, traditionally led by the minister of Canongate Kirk, to celebrate May Day.

Holyrood Park also used to be the venue for the annual Edinburgh miners’ gala at the start of May each year. A parade of trade unionists through the streets would be followed by speeches in the park, often from notable figures, followed by a sports day. The tradition of a May Day march continues, though on a smaller scale.

And then there’s Beltane, the ancient Gaelic May Day festival which marks the start of summer. By the mid 20th century, the celebration of Beltane had largely disappeared but a revival of interest has seen a Beltane fire festival held every year since 1988 on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. There are fire dances and a procession by costumed performers, led by the May Queen and the Green Man, culminating in the lighting of a bonfire.

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