May Day Celebrations at TradFest

Beltane or May Day, one of Scotland’s two most important seasonal turning-points, marks the traditional move to outdoor life, before the reverse move back inside happens at Samhainn or Hallowe’en.

Opening the May Day celebrations is Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill (Mon 30 Apr), followed by another exciting week of trad art festivities, including the May Day Parade & Rally (Sat 5 May), our very own Family Beltane (Sun 6 May), and finally an evening of storytelling with Robin Hood: Riot, Rant & Rebellion and his group of infamous outlaws on Sunday night 6 May.

Discover the origins of May Day, it’s meaning and development throughout time and join us at TradFest to give the summer season a warm and joyful welcome!  

Donald Smith May Day 2017Donald Smith, TRACS Director, on the tradition of Beltane:

As this year’s weather shows yet again the 1st May is a much more relevant date for the celebration of Spring, which is a movable feast in Scotland and sometimes omitted altogether. That’s because Beira, the goddess of winter, hits back hard at any first signs of growth and warmth, even as her powers gradually wane.

TradFest’s opening of the May Day celebrations is the Beltane Eve Fire Festival on Calton Hill, Mon 30 Apr. If you last the pace you can then proceed to witness dawn on Arthur’s Seat and wash your face in the dew. Then it’s time to dress up in the fresh greenery and proceed to the Robin Hood May Games, which involve a lot of dancing, eating and liquid refreshment. The full May Day procession follows on Saturday 5th May, and all are invited to join the TradFest ‘mummers’.

Only after all that can you be sure that ‘summer is a comin’, and pack away your winter woollies. The compensation is that good weather in Scotland can stretch through a long autumn, till darkness once more prevails over light. Then it’s time to get out the masks and costumes and dress up once more to welcome in the winter storytelling.

Kristín Linnet, from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures looked at the meaning of May Day celebrations over time and today

Originally, May Day was a pagan celebration of the end of winter and coming of summer, related to the Gaelic Beltane Festival. In 16th century UK, people would come together, sing songs, dance and put on plays. Many plays included the legendary British outlaw, Robin Hood, and were lively and obscene public affairs, which is why they were banned in 1555 and caused uproar in many communities.

Robin Hood PlayToday, many countries around the world and workers unions celebrate May Day by organising rallies and demonstrations in celebration and demand of workers’ rights. International Workers’ Day (Tue 1st May) has its roots in the 19th century, and was chosen by trade unions to celebrate labour and labour workers. The Robin Hood plays are often considered part of the celebration’s origin, as he himself fought for the poor by giving them the money he stole from the rich.

In Edinburgh, the May Day Rally has traditionally been held on the first weekend of May in the last few years. This year’s May Day Rally or May Day Parade is no exception and will be held on Saturday the 5th of May. Like the year before, the parade departs at 12pm, with participants meeting at Johnston Terrace half an hour earlier; the procession then travels to The Pleasance Theatre, where the rally will be held at 12.30pm. Leading the parade is the Stockbridge Pipe Band, with the Tranent Unison Pipe Band following behind. Also joining the May Day Rally and Parade is Tradfest, TRACS’ (Traditional Art and Culture Scotland) annual folk arts festival, with a variety of instruments and street performances.

The rally’s focal point this year consists of ‘secure homes, secure health and secure jobs for everyone’. Rally speakers are diverse, and include American author and activist Jane MacAlevey, Scottish writer, anti-war campaigner and performer AL Kennedy, as well as Dave Moxham, deputy general secretary of STUC (Scottish Trades Union Congress). After the rally speeches, a film will be shown; the rally then ends with music from singer and peace activist Penny Stone and Edinburgh singer Calum Bairn amongst others. All are welcome to join in, whether they are students, businessmen or families, in this free outdoor celebration right in the heart of Edinburgh.


Frae the bud leaves are breakin
Trees are dauncin, branches sway
Blossoms in the wind are blawin
Spring has come tae flooer the day  

Tide o green we’re lang awaitin
Noo we’re waukin tae the licht
Gin we’re leal tae yin anither
Comin days could yet be bricht 

Daurk the warld wi cruel violence
Fowk denied their daily breid
Gin we pit brave herts the foremaist
Earth kin rise frae dearth an dreid 

Sae come all ye an yoke thegither
Sisters, brithers haund tae haund
Wi the pooers o life oerflowin
Joy may flourish laund tae laund 

By Donald Smith