Samhuinn Fire Festival: celebrating Gaelic traditions

Calton Hill was ablaze this Halloween night for the Beltane Fire Society’s annual Samhuinn Fire Festival. The event featured almost 400 volunteer performers who drummed, danced, and even sang Scottish Gaelic tunes. Nearly 20 costumed groups of dancers, acrobats, and drummers travelled around Calton Hill, and attendees could follow whichever group of performers interested them.

The night was dark and lit only by torches. Some performers weaved in and out of crowds in the dark, startling festival attendees by getting in their faces, making intense eye contact, or even stealing a drink from their beers. Pyrotechnic professionals were in attendance to prevent fire-related accidents. The festival culminated in a staged ritual battle between the summer and winter kings, as well as the lighting of a large bonfire looking out over Edinburgh.

According to the BBC, this was the first time the Fire Festival has been held on Calton Hill for 600 years. The festival previously took place on the Royal Mile, but having the event on Calton Hill allowed more space for performers to walk around and spread out, while also providing festival-goers with a beautiful nighttime view of Edinburgh.

Although the Fire Festival involved dramatic dancing and battle scenes, the feast of Samhuinn was not always a showy celebration. Historically, Samhuinn was one of the four main festivals of the Gaelic calendar, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. The four Gaelic seasonal festivals were Samhuinn, which took place around November 1, Imbolc around February 1, Beltane around May 1, and Lughnasadh around August 1.

Festivals divided the year into seasons so that contracts and leases could be bound by specific timelines: whereas ancient people may not have kept track of every day of each month, everyone knew when the four festivals took place.

Later on, folklore depicted Samhuinn as a time of games and divination. Certain medieval Celtic texts suggest that Samhuinn is a time when the Otherworld, the realm of the dead, is more accessible. For example, the tale Echtra Nerai (The Adventures of Nerai) takes place on Samhuinn, and features a corpse who kills an entire family by spitting bath water on them. The story describes Samhuinn ominously: “Great was the darkness of the night and its horror, and demons would appear on that night always.”

Over time, the traditional feast of Samhuinn developed into what we now know as Halloween.

The Samhuinn Fire Festival was not strictly historical, and volunteers were allowed to portray their own versions of traditional Celtic performances. Still, the festival on Calton Hill was good, spooky fun, giving its audience a sense of the Otherworld perhaps being closer than usual.

Image: Alasdair via Flickr

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