A thousand people surged
against me, some trying to snatch my flaming torch, some trying to push
around me, over me or through me. Tribal drumbeats sounded across the
cold night air, rhythmic, sensuous, mysterious. Strangely dressed
apparitions whooped and cavorted nearby, some crawling, as if deranged,
upon the dew laden grass, slithering along, hauling themselves towards
two figures sat under a decorated tree on some kind of wicker seat.
Some of these bedeviled red men were being whipped with branches,
whilst others belched flames up into the sky which scorched the retinae
for several seconds. Bonfires roared in the distance, seemingly alive,
beacons amidst this frenzied maelstrom of barely contained activity.
Several girls removed their tops, and danced as if possessed. Beer and
wine flowed freely, and the rising dawn sun did little to quell the
frenetic nature of this gathering. I looked across at the other torch
bearers, and they seemed, like me, transfixed by this bewitching
spectacle, oddly uniform, slightly sinister with their blackened faces
adorned with gold and silver runic symbols. Suddenly, our cordon broke,
and the hundreds of people behind us poured into the area we were
protecting. Cries and screams of ecstasy and partial oblivion
added to the heady cacophony, fueled by fresh drumbeats and powerful
sensations. I put down my dwindling torch, not needed now, and joined
the writhing throng.
This was my first appearance and attendance at the now legendary Beltane festival in Edinburgh. Once a medieval traditional gathering to celebrate the transition of Winter into Spring, on May eve, the practice was stopped as the Industrial age swept in, and grim rationale replaced any spiritual or ritualistic necessities. However, in 1988, Angus Farquhar, from the band Test Department, decided to resurrect the festival for the city and the people. Collaborating with dancer/choreographer Liz Ranken and performance artist Lindsay John, they created a contemporary annual event, strictly rooted in, and faithful to, the ancient Beltane ritual. They set about making authentic costumes, and planning the route the procession should take. It was decided that the entire event should take place on Calton Hill, which overlooks the whole city. This was believed to be an ancient site of power (it does seem to have peculiar qualities). The May Queen (played by Liz) and her attendant White Women would process along a specific path. On the way, she would have to ‘overcome’ the four ‘elements’ - separate performance pieces indicative of the struggle with the four natural earth elements. The mischievous ‘Red Men’ would threaten the procession at strategic areas - barely clad, red painted fiends, who tumbled, leapt and spew fire in all directions. Finally, she would overcome the figure of Winter, and transform him into Spring. Rejoicings and much festivity would then ensue.
The occasion has grown in popularity and scale each year, and now commands audiences of up to twelve thousand people. I was invited to take part, and provide a dawn pyrotechnical display. Richard Stanley, the enigmatic director of Hardware and Dust Devil, had met Liz’s boyfriend Mark at Glastonbury, and learnt of the antics of the Beltane Fire Society. Intrigued, he stayed in touch with the organisers, and went up to see for himself, detonating a pyro laden wooden goat ‘sacrifice’ at dawn for the crowds. I had constructed this four legged ‘creature’ for him, and wired in all the charges, but could not attend the particular day, so sadly missed the chaos.
When the next festival came around, I did not hesitate. Richard and I decided to up the ante - so asked the Beltane Society in Edinburgh to build a large Stag. I constructed two dedicated firing boxes for the pyros - one for sequential detonation and one for fast sequence firing. I planned the order of explosions, fireworks and effects perfectly (is this sounding familiar?!). It would be spectacular. By dawn, I was told, survivors would be in, how shall I say, an advanced state of merriment. How to announce the expected dawn sacrifice? Luckily, I managed to get my hands on a military flare - went up a thousand feet up, gave a half-million candle light, then descended on a wee parachute. Platoon in Scotland, I fondly imagined! It might well attract the attention of any light aircraft/shipping in the area, but this would just add to the fan base. With the equipment stowed, Harvey Fenton (editor, Flesh and Blood) drove us up. It was my first time in Scotland, and besides getting to blow the shit out of something fairly large, in front of a captive audience of five thousand remaining revelers, I would also get to paint my face black, daub strange runic symbols on it, and carry a large iron flaming torch around. What more can a man want?
We stayed with the costume designer of Sleepy Hollow, who, amongst other things, had an outstanding collection of aviator/film prop goggles. I went Mad Max with these for a while before we left to rig up the wooden stag. The Beltane crew had constructed an impressive beast. (see picture) To remain worthy contributors, we had bought along an impressive amount of explosive material - this was definitely to be a non smoking afternoon! I wired them into the structure according to my design, whilst everyone busied themselves for the coming festival. Wiring charges takes a surprisingly long time, as each one must have two wires leading to the firing box, and be properly placed and fixed.
Once again, we gave the creature a formidable
appendage - a three stage flaming dong consisting of various firework
effects - much to the amusement of bystanders. The stag was to belch
fire, spray fiery streamers, flash, pop, fizz and bang, then burst into
flame before violently exploding and tearing itself to a thousand
pieces. Even then, the fun wouldn’t end, as Richard and I had
cunningly concealed fearsome secondary charges, which would only
explode when the remains of the stag were on the floor, burning - low
down dirty shock tactics, I know, but it was May Day after all. I was
beginning to get profound sexual excitement from the thought of setting
it all off ...... (er, I mean the excitement from the anticipation of
the display grew within me...). Finally, hours later, it was ready. It
stood there crazily, a mare’s tail of wires leading away,
each labeled for its effect. I whispered in its paper ear that
everything was going to be OK, and not to worry. It’s all in
a good cause, so don’t get any ideas about running away, I
sternly warned it. Primed for action, it was safely stowed away. Then,
it was off to make-up.
There were some twelve of us torch bearers, from all over Europe it seemed. We blacked up our faces, then applied generic runes to each other. As I was tracing out ye old Celtic shite onto one guy’s face, I was filled with the urge to do him up all Steve Strange - but instead settled for some kind of Middle Ages ‘Adam Ant’ look, which he seemed to approve of. (some Eighties fans just won’t move on .....) When all were done, we stared in bewilderment and amusement at each other. The effect was not comical, but pretty unnerving - like the German Black Peters. Our job, we assured each other, was to protect the White Women from harm - we were the goddam pagan secret service! Thus imbued with righteous fire in our belly, we climbed the hill to prepare for the festivities.
Around us were the jubilant masses, and we lined up in our fenced off enclosure with the other performers, ready to start the procession. A bloated, sensuous full moon burnt overhead, casting a strange hue on Calton Hill. To quell our nerves, a bottle of whisky was passed around. For many of us, it was a completely new experience. The drumming started and our stomachs leapt. We trooped off into the thousands of spectators, to wild cheers, sporadic camera flash bursts and pockets of wild partying. We ascended the huge steps of the ‘temple’ - five looming Greek style pillars and ledges. The torch bearers fanned out on each side, standing some ten feet above the crowds. It seemed unreal, a bizarre dream - truly a rush of excitement, trepidation and an odd sense of belonging. A burning torch was passed down the line so we could ignite our own torches - I had one of the heavy iron poles. Then the hypnotic, pagan drumming started, reached a crescendo, and we were off. Barely knowing what I was doing, I followed the procession, fending off drunkards, some trying to steal the torch, some trying to join in the march. On several occasions I had to physically haul people from our processing trail. But I was too swept up in the energy of it all - as the May Queen did ritual performance art at each of the four ‘elemental’ areas, as the ‘Fire Spirits’ leapt and cavorted, taunting us and the White Women, in mock threat, spewing sheets of fire into the night sky, tumbling over the hill, swinging flaming metal balls - dervish like, mystifying, alluring and potent. Finally, it was over. The lead players took up their ‘Throne’, drink flowed, drummers belted out new, primal rhythms. Beltane is primarily a fertility festival, and the year previous, four of the White Women had fallen pregnant! It was not a night for Christians. I have never experienced something so authentic, dedicated and passionate - Mark and Liz, the organisers, were rightfully proud.
As numbers dwindled, and the cold seeped in, Richard, Harvey and myself whiled away the early hours, taking in the deranged spectacle, gearing ourselves up for our dawn display. We had secreted the Stag behind a large wall, part of the enclosure for the Royal Astronomical Society grounds, also situated on the hill. My bag containing the all important firing boxes, tools and military signal flare was hidden under bushes within this enclosure. As the first light touched our still blackened and wearied faces, we went to ready the ‘sacrifice’ - our own particularly noisy dawn chorus. I found it first. The Stag had been thrown to the ground. The paper skin had been mostly torn away. The main wooden supporting structure was wrecked. One leg was hanging limply off the main body. My carefully placed charges were shifted violently out of position. Some wires hung loose, and most painfully off all, its pyrotechnic dick was ruptured. It had been killed. And, to make matters much, much worse, my bag was missing. Who would do such a thing? Only ourselves and the organisers knew where the Stag was.
Then I remembered. Earlier, when I returned to make the final adjustments to the display beast, an old guy from the Astronomical Society bellowed at me for trespassing, even though we had been told that permission had been given. “You! Get the hell outta here, pal! And tek yer stinking Stag with ye!” The bastard star gazers had wantonly wrecked our precious creation! Hours of work ruined - and some filthy thieving scumbag had walked off with my fantastic blast boxes - the jewel in the Shadow Theatre arsenal, one of them already a veteran of Beltane! All those hours into the early morning spent struggling to remember basic electronics, solder flying, drill whirring, voltage flowing! Swearing as circuits wouldn’t work, even testing a charge in my room at risk of personal injury! I cursed the person responsible a thousand times! And his mother, and his mother’s mother! All three of us fell into a deep depression. “This always happens!” lamented Richard, before rambling off on some paranoid conspiracy theory. “We’ve been sabotaged!” he cried. “Motherfuckers!” I added, needlessly. Harvey hung his head in spiritual pain.
We went over to the remains of our creation. It sagged painfully, pyros protruding like eviscerated organs, wiring exposed like veins. As the dawn light grew stronger, and the sun threatened to appear, thousands waiting in anticipation of the expected display, all seemed doomed. Mark joined us, and was as shocked as we were. The Astronomical Society? A jealous pyrotechnician? Earlier, we had had a spat with one of the effects guys from the Edinburgh contingent. Christian rebels? The Scottish Firework Police? Or, more worryingly, perhaps God himself? I remembered my Bible for an instant – Fawkes 8, Verse II – “Thou shalt not indulge in gratuitous explosions.” I trembled in fear. Then, something in me screamed. We would not be beaten by the evil forces we imagined were against us. “Fuck it!” I cried. “Fuck ‘em! We’ll still blow it up! Whatever’s left, we’ll blow the shit out of it!” The others just stared at me, part sympathy, part concern. But Mark rushed off to get a car battery. I would just have to connect whatever wires came to hand, and see what happened. The four of us lugged the sorry looking Stag over the wall, and through the remaining crowd. It was a little embarrassing, as of course they would be thinking that the Stag was meant to be in this state! Ha! Any derision would soon be quashed as the gunpowder went to work. We managed to get it to stand on its own on the path below the festivities. I fed out the tail of wires, and plonked the battery down, some distance away.
All eyes were on me now. I could feel the rising sun on my back, and the soft dew between my fingers as I crouched down. I would not fail them! Swallowing hard, I touched the first pair of wires to the terminals. Nothing! The collective disappointment of the crowd smashed into me like the charge of a fierce animal. I had thoughts of just setting fire to the thing’s arse and running away. Quickly. But then - a hiss! A piffle of smoke! BOOM! The flamer in its mouth erupted and sent a blast some feet in front of it! Cheers! Applause! Joy! Spurred on, I grabbed another bunch of wires ..... KABOOM! Five charges detonated with some ferocity, and I had to duck as pieces of wooden Stag flew towards me. Then more! Its dangerous dick ignited, spewing flaming particles into the ground. Its ‘antlers’ shot fire and brimstone into the sky. The watching people loved it! Secreted devices triggered deep within the thing, blasting more pieces all over, coloured fire, spectacular, mesmerising effects.
Then, the finale - a ‘gerb’ situated within the Stag set fire to the whole thing. I joined the others to watch the final demise. As we all stood looking, entranced like children, I saw some fool walk towards the exploding carnage. “Get back! Back I say! There’s still charges left in it!”
“Fuck you!” the mad man cried. I turned to the others, and shrugged. Well mate, it’s your life! Just as that thought percolated through my hazy mind, a awesome explosion occurred, sending the man scampering backwards, frantically trying to brush flaming pieces from his person. How we laughed! It was done. We walked down to the remaining embers - burning copper wires giving a mysterious green hue to the fire. “Hey! You!” a fearsome voice said. We all turned to see two battle scared geezers walk towards us. I noticed, as they got closer, each sported serious scars to their faces, with noses that veered off at odd angles. Ears that looked like uncooked pastry. Several teeth missing. Oh shite, I thought.
“You!” he pointed at me. I have a black face which is covered with silver runes, I thought. That possibly makes me a target....
“Yeah, you!” His thick Glaswegian accent struck fear into my soul.
“Are you the violent cunt that did this?” Richard and Harvey backed off slightly.
“Ur, well, I might have been involved. Slightly.”
“Did you fucking do it or not?”
I looked furtively around. Everyone looked bewildered. And a little scared. “Well, ur, well, yes. Yes, I did.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “Did you enjoy it? Or...not?”
He said nothing, but walked towards me purposefully. His friend tried to grin, with what was left of his face. I suspected imminent violence.
“You violent cunt!” he cried, before grabbing me, then hugging me. “It was fucking great!”
His friend’s grin echoed his sentiments. I just smiled knowingly.