STAGGERING off a train “a touch the worse for wear” at Waverley, musician and activist Angus Farquhar had 48 hours to put on the inaugural Beltane Fire Festival.
Rows with police and near misses with fire would follow as 200 committed souls gathered on a storm-lashed Calton Hill for the revival of an ancient Celtic tradition.
Fast-forward three decades and up to 10,000 revellers are expected to take in the biggest Beltane yet tomorrow night – in mercifully more favourable conditions.
“It was both wonderful and anarchic,” said Angus, 55, of that legacy-forming first night. “Arguing with the police, a friend stopping me falling into the fire at least twice.”
What started as Angus’ vision to rekindle the tradition after a 100-year gap has grown into a huge spectacle with five-figure budget, year-round planning and 350 volunteers.
“It’s about keeping the balance right,” said chair of Beltane Fire Society Erin Macdonald. “We want to make sure we’re putting on an amazing and successful night but we don’t want to lose our roots.
“We’re working with organisations across the city so it’s as safe a night as possible – but we need to keep the wildness.”
Ms Macdonald said the festival is “put on by the city, for the city” with volunteers trained in skills ranging from drumming to fire dancing.
The flaming centrepiece arch will be bigger and more ornate than ever this year – high enough to fit a fire engine through, though organisers hope not to have to demonstrate.
Featuring the Green Man and May Queen, the festival celebrates the arrival of summer with drums, acrobatics, immersive theatre and, of course, fire.
“It always felt apt to celebrate spring, warmth coming back into the air and the miracle of renewal,” said Angus, of a festival with roots stretching back to the first century AD.
“I’m incredibly proud of its evolution, the energy and commitment of the hundreds of volunteers who make it happen and draw strength from the heart of its rituals and traditions.”
Wowing the crowds on Calton Hill tomorrow will be giant puppets, intricate costumes, new fire sculptures and theatre by flames.
Stunning willow sculptures and decorations are also expected to transform the Capital landmark.
“We’ve asked our volunteers to think big and explore the roots of the festival,” said Ms MacDonald.
Organisers are also holding a ‘Beltane Community Open Day’ on Calton Hill today for families to join – with drumming workshops, storytelling, children’s activities and walking tours.
“Beltane is an event that cannot be described, it has to be felt, and that’s what makes it so special,” said Ms MacDonald.