BELTANE is thought to come from Scottish Gaelic, meaning the beginning of May, the beginning of summer. Scots celebrate it on the first day in May. As noted in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL), it was marked as a quarter day – “Hallowmas, Candlemas, Beltane (or Whitsunday) and Lammas”. Beltane was also celebrated by lighting hilltop fires, described in DSL thus: “A fire festival observed on the hill-tops generally on May 1 and 3 ... and more particularly, but not exclusively, in the Highlands”. Although Beltane has been recorded since the 15th century, the earliest mention of fire-lighting comes from 1750 in The Social Life of Scotland in the 18th Century by Henry Graham, published in 1899: “Beyond the Tay they had their Beltane fires – when on the first of May (Old Style) they lit the fire of turf, danced round the flames, and spilt a libation of caudle [a warm drink of spiced wine] on the ground.”.

After dying out for many years, the festival and lighting of fires became popular again in the 20th century. The Scotsman of June 1931 notes: “The proceedings in connection with the Peebles March Riding and Beltane Festival were begun last night”. In The List of Spring 1998 the following appeared: “The Beltane Fire Festival Calton Hill, every 30 Apr. Edinburgh might have a Calvinist reputation, but come Beltane night, a growing group of performers get pagan...”

In today’s world the festival seems to have become a fixture, as this example from the Edinburgh Evening News of March 2021 illustrates: “Key participants [in new arts festivals for 2022] include … a company set up by environmental arts producer and Beltane Fire Festival founder Angus Farquhar, who has previously staged outdoor events at... Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh and Glen Lyon in Perthshire.”

Scots Word of the Week is written by Pauline Cairns Speitel, Dictionaries of the Scots Language