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Beltane and May Dew: An Ancient and Modern Tradition Returning Tradition

You Ultimate Guide to Scottish and Clan Baird Holidays and Traditions: Ancient Traditions you can celebrate at home (if you can't make it to Edinburgh!)

By Fiendfall - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The burning of a 40ft wickerman at Butser Ancient Farm.

Many ancient traditions all but died out in the 20th century. Whatever the reason, these traditions were lost and left a hole in Scottish society. Now, these traditions, like the fire festival of Beltane and its related May dew custom, are returning with a Vengeance.


Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival celebrated on May 1st, marking the beginning of summer in Scotland. In the Celtic year, it bookmarks the first half of the year of the pastoral year. By Beltane, seed is committed to the ground and by Samhainn (Halloween), the harvest is complete. Just 6 months separates the dates and marks one of the ancient quarter festivals still celebrated regularly.

Belane is not linguistically related to the semitic term Baal(Lord). Multiple etymologies have been given including the term "Bright fire". It is not the worship festival of an ancient semitic Deity. The festival is a time of joyous celebration, where people come together to welcome the return of the sun, the awakening of nature, and the promise of a bountiful harvest.

Several ancient traditions survived into the modern era. in 1772, Pennant wrote:

"Till of late years the superstition of the Bel-tein was kept up in these parts, and in this rural sacrifice it was customary for the performers to bring with them boughs of the mountain ash...."

He continued in his description:

"On the 1st of May the herdsmen of every village hold their Bel-tein a rural sacrifice. They cut a square trench on the ground, leaving the turf in the middle; on that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk; and bring, besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky, for each of the company must contribute something. The rites begin with Spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation: on that everyone takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of heir flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them: each person then urns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulder, says. This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; This to thee, preserve thou my sheep and so on. After that, they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: This I give to thee, O Fox Spare thou my lambs; this to thee. O hooded Crow! This to thee, 0 Eagle!"

"When the ceremony, they dine on the caudle-, and after the that is finished, what is left is hid by two persons deputed for that purpose; but on the next Sunday they reassemble, and finish the reliques of the first entertainment."

According to J.M. Macpherson, in his Primitive beliefs, in the Northeast of Scotland, this festival moved to May 2nd as to stop the work of witches. Bonfires were lit to prevent witches from doing their evil work. In Shetland, bonfires would be made, and men would leap over them as late as the 1870s. Ayrshire, up through 1895, continued a memory of the Beltane although the day was moved to St. Peter's Day (June 29th). Slowly these traditions began to die out through late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1988. in Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival roared to life. Today's festival is a modern interpretation of the traditional celebration, attracting thousands of visitors from all over the world. The festival is a vibrant and immersive experience that brings together music, dance, theater, and storytelling, all centered around the themes of rebirth, renewal, and transformation.

The festival takes place on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. It is a procession, which starts at the National Monument and proceeds anti-clockwise around the path meeting various groups along the way. The procession is driven by the beat of drums which urge it inexorably towards summer.

The performers lead the crowd through a series of theatrical vignettes that tell the story of Beltane, weaving together ancient myths and modern interpretations. The festival culminates with the symbolic marriage of the May Queen and the Green Man, a representation of the union between the earth and the sun, which brings fertility and abundance to the land.

Beltane is a time of renewal, a time when the land comes back to life after the long winter months. The fire ceremony at Edinburgh is the celebration of this time.

May Dew

By David Monniaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh

Another traditional custom that appears to be returning is the May Dew. Up until the 20th century, people would arise at 4am to climb Arthur's seat in Edinburgh to scrub their faces with the May dew. This was said to bring happiness, joy and beauty.

This tradition has been reported as growing in popularity and each year, more and more people are reported to climb Arthur's seat.

This year, if you aren't able to make it to Edinburgh and catch the dew, or attend a modern fire festival, burn your own bonfire, backyard fire pit or candle and connect to the ancient traditions of Scotland that are finding their way back.

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