More than 7000 watched Samhuinn Fire Festival

Thousands gathered to watch winter triumph over summer last night at the immersive Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh’s city centre.

A crowd of more than 7,000 climbed Calton Hill to see 250 volunteers re-imagine the Celtic New Year with a modern twist. Performers embellished the traditional holiday with fire spinning, drumming, acrobatics and interactive theatre, which brought to life the ritual struggle between the seasons.

Last night was the second time that Samhuinn Fire Festival was held as a ticketed event on Calton Hill, which sold out in 2018 to a crowd of 4,500. The event has nearly doubled in size since then, making it the same size as its sister event Beltane Fire Festival, and this year it sold out again the day before the festival.

Up until last year Samhuinn Fire Festival was held as a free-to-attend event on The Royal Mile, and its changed venue gives new opportunities to experiment with the performance’s format. This year saw three processions make their way around Calton Hill, giving the audience the option of following Summer, Winter, or the Cailleach as they made their separate journeys throughout the night.

Ancient Celtic communities believed that the veil between our world and the next is thinnest on Halloween, which allows spirits to pass through and walk among us. Samhuinn Fire Festival revives this tradition to tell the story of the Winter King and the Summer King, who enact their annual battle with the help of their otherworldly followers. Their fates are ultimately decided by the Cailleach, a mysterious crone goddess aligned with Winter.

In keeping with Samhuinn’s sister event Beltane Fire Festival, which this year highlighted sustainability as a theme in its performance, last night’s Winter festival also contained a nod to our environmental crisis. Instead of being rivals from the start, the Summer King and Winter King arrived to the hill confused by the changeable climate and they sought companionship in each other for the first half of the night.

This year Beltane Fire Society was awarded money from the Keep Scotland Beautiful fund to engage its members in ways they can make the organisation and its festivals more sustainable. Beltane Fire Society will be launching a green strategy later this year once this has been completed. Some proceeds from last night’s ticket sales will also be delegated to green initiatives, with Citizen Ticket donating 5% of each ticket’s booking fee to a tree planting charity.

Brad Mcarthur, chair of the board at Beltane Fire Society said: ‘It’s been truly heartwarming to see our winter festival’s popularity continue to grow in recent years, and last night was no exception. We want to say thank you to the masses of people who joined us for such a special night on Calton Hill, and to our volunteers for their continued hard work and the imagination they put into dreaming up this festival. In times like these it’s important for us all to keep celebrating community and togetherness, and last night’s gathering was a perfect example of that.’

Russ McMahon, Beltane Fire Festival’s Event Co-ordinator, said: ‘It’s been fantastic seeing all the ideas that our volunteers have had to keep building a new vision for Samhuinn, and to watch it all come together last night was deeply rewarding. Our volunteers’ passion is what makes this such a world-class event. My thanks go to the hundreds of people in our community and across Edinburgh who made last night possible – our dedicated performers and production groups, the venues across the city that host our rehearsals and socials, Citizen Ticket, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Collective Gallery, Specialized Security, and the City of Edinburgh Council.’

Samhuinn Fire Festival is organised by Beltane Fire Society, a charity run by volunteers dedicated to marking the fire festivals of the ancient Celtic calendar and keeping traditional Scottish skills of street theatre, music, and pageantry alive.

Scottish Field’s Angus Blackburn was there with his camera to capture the festival.

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