Halloween, Gaelic Style – The Samhuinn Fire Festival

1Halloween has started to cast its shadows over Edinburgh weeks ago. And by that, I don’t mean the impending Brexit which turned into a Happy Remain Day 3.0, but the vampire teeth made out of crisps on the shelves of Sainsbury’s and M&S, the clowns in high heels occasionally roaming the campus – but most noticeably the question of “So what are your plans for Halloween?” It wasn’t until I stumbled over a Facebook ad that I finally found my answer to that haunting question: The Samhuinn Fire Festival.

Even though I take Gaelic classes, I had no idea what the festival was supposed to be about, but judging by the photographs on the official website, it looked like something every temporary “toonie” (the local slang referring to a person living in Edinburgh) should add to their portfolio of knowledge about the Scottish culture. And that’s why the evening of the 31st October found two of my friends and me queuing at the bottom of Calton Hill, surrounded by tourists in costumes which had clearly been thrown together in a last-minute frenzy to somehow blend in with the dressed-up partygoers.

It was certainly more crowded than we’d anticipated, but the queue moved as quickly as the cold creeping beneath our winter jackets and bonnets. Even though we were attending the transition from Summer to Winter, it already felt like the latter had taken over.

We had only just made it to the top of the hill when I heard someone quietly excusing themselves behind me and as I turned around to let them pass by, I was faced by a black and white painted face resembling a skull. From beneath a dark, oversized hood, a dark gaze bored right into me and sparks were glimmering on the thick wool coat. Winter had arrived.3

A procession of what looked like Celtic warriors and more hooded figures with skull paint on their faces and torches strode past us, their looks sinister enough to cause a shiver to run down my spine – and this time, it wasn’t from the cold.
As the winter slowly passed by us and made its way towards the acropolis, we hesitantly followed, unsure of what to expect for the pizza and fast food booths nearby conveyed a strange counterbalance to the mystic aura surrounding the actors.

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The Samhuinn Fire Festival is one of the two festivals with Celtic origin celebrated each year in Edinburgh, or Dùn Èideann, as it is called in Gaelic. In a series of small plays acted out by members of the Beltane Fire Society all over Calton Hill, the kings of Summer and Winter come together from both sides of the hill in a trial of strength. Eventually, the Cailleach, the Celtic deity of creation, decides each king’s fate and welcomes the Winter months. Thus, the transmission from Summer to Winter is consummated – similar to a marriage.

Even though the website stated that partial nudity would be nothing strange, I was shocked how many of the actors were able to stand the cold (and later that night even the rain), wearing nothing but bikini-ish pieces of clothing beneath the body paint, if at all. Nonetheless, their performances were just as captivating as the Gaelic symbols catching fire in between the columns of the acropolis.

But if we though the Pizza and fast food booths were a bummer to the atmosphere, they were nothing compared to the amount of people flocking around the performance areas. At times, we had to hold up our cameras and phones – not to take picture or videos, but to see what was happening. And I despite the magic and the mystery of it all, I couldn’t help but think what a controversial image of Scotland the Samhuinn Fire Festival promoted – because this event clearly wasn’t for Scottish people. It was more of a tourist attraction than anything else, a cultural event which, on a different stage, could have been so much more magical, so much more mystical.

And while we discussed the problematic cultural image of Scotland in our lectures and essays to an exhaustive extent, the 31st of October was the first time I truly realised what the romanticised version of the Highlands and their inhabitants had resulted in over the centuries. This is not the real Scotland, the country where roughly 50,000 people are fighting to keep a minority language alive. This is not the Scotland where the kilt is a fabrication made up by an elitist writer who knew nothing about tartans or cultural respect. This is not the Scotland I’ve fallen in love with over the last three months. It is, surely, a part of it, but as we’re making our way down Calton Hill one hour before the big bonfires are set alight, I can’t help but shake my head at the hypocrisy of it all.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrations like the Samhuinn Fire Festival, on the contrary. There should be much more of it to celebrate the cultural diversity of Scotland and especially the Gaelic heritage. But it is wrong to think that this is what life looks like beyond the Highland line. It is wrong to assume that these festivals will keep the Gaelic culture alive because they won’t. Festivals like this are attended by tourists and foreign students who think they will get an impression of what a traditional Scottish Halloween looks like. There is nothing wrong in falling victim to the tourist industry – everyone of us has done so more often than not – but it’s important to be aware of the fact that it is first and foremost always just that: an industry.

Culture, as it seems, is everywhere a bit controversial – no matter where you go.

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