This episode of The Mindstream Podcast was published on 2 November 2020. Below is the full transcript, complete with links of all resources and events mentioned. This transcript is also available as a PDF with embedded links (11 pages in A4 format).
Summary: Halloween season is the one time of year mainstream society opens up to the possibility of the spirits of those who have passed coming forth to hang around us. After all, the ancient Celts believe this is when the veil between the early realm and the spirit world is thinnest. This episode features news of the mystical aspects in modern life, and focuses on artist Sophie McKay Knight‘s experience painting the Tarot card deck, and the Beltane Fire Society‘s Bradley McArthur’s insights on the relevance of ancient Celtic festivals, like Samhuinn and Beltane. We’ll hear why these topics remain relevant to the culture of Scotland.
Listen at MindstreamConnect.com/podcast
Welcome to The Mindstream Podcast, exploring the facts and the stories around mind-body-spirit pathways to greater health and happiness. I’m your host, Liza Horan. In Episode 6 we’re delving into the more magical and mysterious sides of the mind-body-spirit movement — ancient Celtic traditions, faeries, witches, the devil, and the mystical figures in the Tarot cards — to coincide with Halloween time.
Join me as I speak with local artist Sophie McKay Knight, who painted the full deck of 78 Tarot cards over 2.5 years. We’ll learn what her process was and why she went largely with female or androgynous figures. And then we’ll speak with Bradley McArthur, who’s the chair of the Beltane Fire Society, which is world-renowned for carrying on its spectacular Celtic traditions to mark the seasons. Halloween night is Samhuinn (pronounced SOW-inn), also pronounced Samhain (SAM-hane). We’re going to hear all about this fascinating tradition and how it marks the interconnectedness between human life and nature.
Here’s a quick look at some news fit for the season.
[1:45] Halloween time is very fascinating because it’s the one period of the calendar when it’s okay to talk about the mysteries of life and death; when mainstream society will entertain the possibility that those who have passed before still hang around this realm. In fact, Halloween night — All Hallows’ Eve, or Samhain on the Celtic calendar — is the time when the veil between here and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Of course modern entertainment uses ghosts and zombies and vampires and all sorts of other characters to give us a scare.
Maybe it’s not surprising then that Poundland, the national retailer in the UK, sold Ouija boards in 90 of its 800 stores for simply £1. They caught on like wildfire and sold out. When Paul McMasters, a psychic investigator, saw this he was fuming.
Several newspapers including Metro quoted McMasters as saying, “Everyone in the paranormal field is angered. The risks of untrained people using Ouija boards is unimaginable. We won’t even touch Ouija boards.” He said demons can come through the board and attach themselves to the users.
It’s interesting because the only people who considered a game are people who are outside of the fields of paranormal and psychic mediumship. In my own experience as teenagers we thought it was a lot of fun, but then again we had seances at my birthday parties! But I would not touch one now.
The retail shop Damaged Society (left) wasn’t selling the spirit boards, but they were selling 15 items that had to do with the Ouija board, from a throw blanket and a trinket dish to a fabric patch to put on your jeans and a goblet, among other things.
Did you know that Scotland persecuted and killed more witches than any other place on Earth?
In the Kingdom of Fife, just about a half an hour from the city of Edinburgh, there’s an organisation called Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland (RAWS). And in one town, Dalkeith, around 30 women were tried for witchcraft. Six of these were put to death.
They were recently honored in a series of original portraits commissioned by Dalkeith Arts.
For a quick history lesson I’m looking to HeraldScotland.com. Here’s an excerpt from a recent story: “Fear of witchcraft swept across Europe from the mid-15th century, but it was King James VI and his treatise of witchcraft, Daemonology, that sparked the race to eliminate sorcerers responsible for failing crops, illness, bad luck, stormy weather and sick animals. Loyal Scots, who were desperate to prove their commitment to the crown, went on to execute five times more witches than their English counterparts.”
This sad history has become very relevant recently: There’s a petition before the Scottish government right now to officially pardon all of those who were accused and convicted of witchcraft. The organisation called Witches of Scotland is a campaign for a legal pardon and apology and a National Monument to be erected for the thousands of people — mostly women — who were convicted of witchcraft and executed between 1563 and 1736. More than 2,500 of those people were executed.
If you’re looking for an ironic laugh, catch Saturday Night Live that was broadcast on October 25th. That’s the episode that Adele hosted and it features a scene of a psychic telling Adele and her three friends what is to come in 2020. And it will all resonate!
For the month of October, the Union Gallery in the West End of Edinburgh has featured the exhibit called, “The Fool’s Journey” by Sophie McKay Knight. It featured selected artwork from her collection of the Tarot cards and some other mystical and mysterious subjects like The Three Fates, witches and astrology.
[6:59] Bells went off for me when I saw the Tarot was being featured at a gallery. I’ve been surrounded by card reading my whole life because my mother and her mother read the regular playing cards. And my mother also read the Tarot cards. I also enjoy reading the Tarot cards, and always have the book right next to me. You could say I’m a lifelong student of the Tarot.
If you missed the exhibition head to SophieMcKayKnight.com where you can see the images and also purchase her deck, “The Painted Tarot.” And now we’ll join the conversation with artist Sophie McKay Knight.
Host Liza Horan: Welcome Sophie!
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: Hi, nice to be here.
Host Liza Horan: I was just absolutely astonished that someone would take on such a huge and exciting project.
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: A crazy person!
Host Liza Horan: And I was really excited. It was a reminder to think this wouldn’t happen anywhere else, except in Scotland, to have this topic take over an art gallery. I do find that these esoteric topics are just bubbling at the surface and in very conversation and right around every corner. What drove you to pick the Tarot as your subject?
[8:29] Guest Sophie McKay Knight: Honestly, I felt I had to and I can’t even explain why, but it was a combination of things — like everything is a combination of everything, isn’t it? And, particularly when you’re an artist, nothing happens in a vacuum. I always work with the figure.
The images in the Tarot are all figurative so that’s, I suppose, a very kind of simplistic thing, But, I suppose, I’ve been working with stories and fairy tales, and I was sort of veering into archetypes. I’m very inspired by everything really, because I think people are completely fascinating. But I’m often inspired by somebody from the past or a story from history or mythology, so my work was kind of going in that direction anyway, but then — you’re talking about the bubbling of Scotland — I guess things were bubbling within me, too.
My grandmother and mother also read the playing cards, but I haven’t heard anyone else doing that. That’s where I first became interested in cards because you know my nana, particularly, who was from Fife, would always be looking. And she had this wonderful friend called Betty Roger, and Betty Roger would always come around and do our cards. This was when we were children. So I was very much interested from childhood in all of these things, mainly through my grandmother, and my mother was very interested in astrology and she used to do people’s birth charts and whenever we got a new friend or a new boyfriend, it would go, “What sign is he?”
This is all kind of quite normalized, so I guess these two things together. The technical development within my work and the figurative element, and also just wanting to do something that was really much more in line with how I was feeling.
I had met my very good friend Romy Wyser, who I went to see for a reading. She’s a Tarot reader and a guide, so I went to speak to her about things. She said, “You’ve got to do it.” I was saying, “This is something that I would really like to do,” and she just said, “You’ve got to do it.” So I just did!
I had some reservations to begin with because, obviously, it’s such a massive project, and 78 paintings. I don’t think I really knew at the beginning how long it would take me or where it would lead, but I just started it.
I started with the Four of Pentacles and it sold straight away. Then, very quickly, every time I did one, it would sell or somebody would say, “This is really cool,” or I would get really great feedback. So I just carried on and then it just took on its own momentum as these things do.
Host Liza Horan: Can you share a bit about the process of this project?
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: There were periods where I was doing three, four, five (paintings) at a time. It was just coming out of me. Then there were other times where I had to I felt like I had to do other paintings to support the particular card I was working on. It’s quite complicated and involved, and I think I didn’t really speak to my husband very much for about two years because I was always painting!
Host Liza Horan: Any reason that you picked the Four of Pentacles to start with?
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: Yeah, because now I think about it: I think I was feeling a little bit stuck with my practice and the Four of Pentacles is a little bit about holding on; holding on to security and, maybe not, holding on too tightly to something and being very conventional in some senses. So, I think it went along with wanting to just really feel like [that], and I didn’t know what it was I wanted to do — something different. I wanted to break out of that security, I suppose.
Host Liza Horan: That’s great. Thank you for sharing all of that. Were you tentative at all about this subject or did you feel that there is no taboo around the Tarot? As I said, I feel that all of this is sort of part of the culture in Scotland — more than it is any other place that I’ve been. Did it seem like a very natural thing to do or did you worry about it? Did it ever cross your mind that, Oh, people might write me off if I focus on this?
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: Yeah, oh yeah! I did. Yes, I agree that Scotland and Fife have this history of the esoteric and all the rest of it, but actually people are very skeptical. I did feel very worried about that. I think I had to really go over that because there’s a lot of judgment around this sort of subject and I think there’s a lot of inaccurate assumptions around it, as well: That you can’t be a thinking person; [that] you’re just jumping on a bandwagon or not taking things seriously. People will have their own assumptions, but, yes, I had a lot of reservations about doing it. And it did keep me up at night but I did have this sort of desire to just see where it would lead me. But, yes, it was something I absolutely had to get over.
I think being an artist you feel vulnerable most of the time anyway because you’re putting yourself out there. I think it’s the whole thing about if you’re aligned with what you’re doing, it’s vulnerable-making. I suppose it’s a belief system, as well, but it does give you a little bit more consternation. Maybe ‘yes’ is the short answer. Yes, I did have a lot of reservations. The reception has been really positive and I’m massively grateful for that, but I think I made a decision to be myself with it; to do it in my own way, which is the only way to do anything creative.
Previously I had been and I still am working with scientific imagery, and I was thinking, “Well, how can I marry the science with the Tarot?” Actually for me, there is this massive connection between science, energy, Tarot, history for me — it’s all one. It was getting my head around the fact that I didn’t have to do my work in separate categories.
Within the Tarot deck there are some pieces like the Death card, for example. There’s a lot of references to energy and science and parapsychology and that kind of thing, so for me it all crosses over.
Every card was an illustration or a manifestation of things that I already knew and I already felt, but I guess it’s the combination of those things that I wasn’t aware of; that I wasn’t expecting. I remember when I did The Empress, which was very early on, I couldn’t wait to get her out because The Empress in the Tarot is such a big energy.
Some of the cards are based on my friends or my childhood memories or whatever. The way I work is a kind of mixed media: a lot of screen printed elements and painted elements, and within The Empress is the symbol for entropy and energy. So I’d already started putting in scientific imagery. The combination of elements is something that sometimes was quite surprising. I think I said at the beginning I had to do these other paintings to bring them to life.
[17:00] The Devil card was one of those. Some of them I was really wary of — like The Tower, for example. Yes, I was really wary of that — incredibly wary — because The Tower always shows up for me when the chips are down quite badly down and all the energy I’m feeling is quite challenging.
Just around the time I was painting The Devil I had been talking a lot and listening a lot to stories and historical things about the witch trials. The Scottish Witch Trials. A lot of the women who were accused of witchcraft were accused of “dancing with the Devil.” And so because The Devil was such a big energy, I was thinking, “Gosh, how do I do this? How do you do these big energy cards without being cliched?”
My Devil is actually quite cliched in that he’s got horns and he’s got wings and all the rest of it. A lot of the time I wanted to weave in what I was interested in, so I didn’t do research in particular but I was always weaving in the things that I was already interested in. For example with The Devil, the witch trials. With The Sun card, I had been reading a book about Circe, the daughter of Helios (the sun god), so that was a Greek myth that I was weaving into that. Whatever I was working on had within it the things I was already interested in. I might have gone and done a little bit of extra research about that thing, but it wasn’t always about the card itself because the card was a sort of culmination of lots of different things. In some ways I had to leave things out.
[18:44] Host Liza Horan: I’m fascinated how while we were standing in the gallery, The Devil was there and he was behind a pane of glass and, as we were discussing it, I had to move out of his gaze. It’s a very unusual experience for me to have because I’m comfortable in any situation, I don’t mind talking about hard things or being confronted with hard truths or anything. But there was something about that image that I just felt I needed to step outside of his gaze. I could see my reflection in The Devil, and that was the pane of glass.
The images are large-as-life because they’re very big canvases, and that one was very interesting. But just next to The Devil you had a couple of witches and they don’t look cliche at all. In fact, they look a little like an ordinary young girl might look back in the day. I also saw that you had The Three Fates in there and, as you talked about you’re [being] very interested in mythology and these guys are characters from lore, they fit beautifully into this exhibition.
It is very prominently female. It seems deliberate, and I was just wondering if there was anything you wanted to say about that.
[20:24] Guest Sophie McKay Knight: They’re really interesting questions. Like I say, I’ve been having lots of chats and have a really lovely friend called Susan Goodfellow, who works with the archive department for Fife Cultural Trust, and she and I always had great chats about the Scottish witches. She’s very knowledgeable, and she put me on to this BBC Scotland podcast called “Witchhunt,” and so I listened to this. It is an absolutely fascinating account of what happened in Scotland during this terrible period. I was really interested in this anyway and I had been asked to contribute one of my images for Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland (RAWS), which is a Fife association. The reason they said that they liked it was because it looked like a normal young girl. That was really important to me because I just feel that even the use of the word “witch” in that context is really inaccurate because they were women who were young women sometimes, although mainly older women, actually who were accused and tortured. It was mainly the older women. Probably women about my age, 40s. There was a lot of pain, a lot of suffering and an incredible amount of paranoia and difficulty associated with everything to do that period.
I didn’t want to paint the pain that these women went through. I didn’t want to paint the suffering and that sort of violence. I didn’t. That wasn’t something that I felt I could do, and I didn’t also feel that that would necessarily help the memory of these women — and some men, as well. I suppose I wanted to think about these women as normal young girls and young women who were interested [or] perhaps did have this sense of paranoia, the sense of society closing in on itself, and the threat, and this sense of maybe they could see right around the corner, maybe they could see into the future. And what’s wrong with that?
This idea that they were accused of “dancing with the Devil” and the faeries really fascinated me a lot. I had actually done a series of paintings, quite a while ago, called The Little People of faeries in Fife. They were miniatures. So that was a theme already in my work, but when I came to paint The Devil, I painted these witch girls at the same time because I felt that they came as one piece. There were originally four of these paintings; just two of them are in the Union Gallery, but I painted them as one conception.
This interesting situation of looking into The Devil and seeing yourself is exactly my interpretation of The Devil card.
Host Liza Horan: Oh, okay. It was very effective then!
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: I didn’t mean it with the glass [in front]. But I think it’s really fascinating that you had that reaction because The Devil is whatever chains you; whatever you trip yourself up with. So it can be addictive behavior or negative thought patterns or things almost being “the devil on your shoulder.” All of that is within yourself, so it’s interesting that one sees oneself in The Devil. I’ve had a few other people saying things like, “I can’t stop looking at him! Is he looking at me? Am I looking at him?” And someone else said, “Am I supposed to fancy him?”
There’s all of this kind of weird, reflexive energy that does go on with The Devil card, so it’s interesting. And it’s interesting that he’s a man because, as you’ve noticed, I’ve mainly painted women. A lot of the cards in the deck are female. Some of the traditional cards are male, like the Knights, the Pages, The Fool, The Hierophant.
I don’t really know why, but I suppose I’m very drawn to the female — the goddess thing. I think that is a very fascinating area. I think, Why were these very important roles given to men? Why not give them to a woman? The female perspective — well it’s my perspective, obviously — but why were the important ones (The Hierophant, for example, was the Pope…and I never really liked that. Never sat well with me when I was reading Tarot. But they were all male. It just felt the balance was all wrong.
But I kept The Devil as a man. Obviously, it’s very limiting to think that only men should be in these various capacities.
Host Liza Horan: Through lockdown I’ve been watching a lot of epic series shows like “Game of Thrones” and I just finished watching “The Last Kingdom,” and for a while I had watched “Vikings” a couple of years ago. And I watch every documentary I can on Scotland, on history of the UK, and Ireland, and Celtic history, Pagan, Druid. All of this is fascinating to me and the reality is that there were female warriors; there were female leaders. It was much more equal ‘way back when’ than it is today. And I think what struck me about your collection is that as much as people might look at it and say, “Oh, she’s making a statement here about women should be more on the forefront,” to me it’s a throwback.
The Death card that you created was absolutely compelling and beautiful — and I know it’s sold; it seems to have sold very early, as well.
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: It was the first one to [sell].
[27:26] Host Liza Horan: It’s a little scary and ominous, as it should be, but what I saw was little hummingbirds and I saw flashes of bright green to suggest there is ‘life beyond the veil,’ and it was a beautiful lace veil with your screen printing.
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: The paintings came first, obviously, but now the deck is a thing within itself and lots of people have said to me, “God, it doesn’t pull any punches!” It’s quite a punchy energy, apparently, and a couple of my friends said, “Oh, yeah, we call it ‘the deck of truth.'”
Yes, I agree there’s a definite throwback sense [about female leaders]. I really love that analogy, but it’s also [that] some of them I didn’t want them to be male or female. I just wanted them to be themselves and wanted them to be the energy — so it wasn’t and definitely [is] not making a statement on purpose. It’s just more that, I suppose, my perspective is very female but it’s that thing of wanting it to be more equal, wanting it to be more androgynous and that’s sort of blurring of gender I find really beautiful and interesting.
Some of the more traditional male energies — The Hierophant is a really good example [because] it’s neither male nor female. It’s the essence of peace. It’s the essence of the energy, which is not one thing or the other in terms of gender.
Host Liza Horan: It’s never been a better time to bring this forward because it’s a very hot topic: the pronouns that people want to be known by, the transgender conversation, androgyny even as a fashion trend right now.
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: It’s just about being the purest form of yourself, isn’t it? And it just doesn’t matter what the label is, I think.
Host Liza Horan: It’s honoring something without judging it. And I believe we over-label things. We shouldn’t label things because it diminishes whatever the truth is.
I want to thank you so much for your beautiful work and bringing your spirit and ideas to The Mindstream Podcast.
Guest Sophie McKay Knight: Thank you for having me. It’s been lovely to talk.
Two thousand years ago the Celts would gather on October 31st and into November 1st for several reasons. They felt at this time the veil between the living and the dead was as thin as it would be all year and November 1st became New Year’s Day. But there’s more: Samhuinn (Samhain) marks the transition between seasons. The Summer King hands the season off to The Winter King. That feat takes shape every year in Edinburgh on Calton Hill, as organised by the Beltane Fire Society.
I spoke with the chair of this charity, Bradley McArthur, to learn more about their world-renowned festival for Samhuinn and the mission of the organisation and why tradition in Scottish history is relevant today. Bradley told me that the Beltane Fire Society, as it’s known today, actually started as a small group of like-minded people getting together back in the late ’80s to celebrate the art and heritage of Scotland. It was about reconnecting with green space. And over the years it grew to such popularity that in 2008 the group organised as a formal charity, the Beltane Fire Society, which is a self-funded organisation. They take no funding from the city, grants or sponsors. All their income is from ticket sales to their events and donations.
Covid-19 lockdown restrictions happened one month before the Beltane Festival in April and so they acted very quickly to throw something together online, and for Samhuinn on Halloween, they had much more prep time. To watch this year’s Samhuinn Fire Festival just go to Beltane.org or find the Beltane Fire Society on Facebook or YouTube. It’s free.
Alright, let’s join the conversation with Bradley McArthur, the chair of the Beltane Fire Society.
Host Liza Horan: Bradley, I’d like to thank you so much for joining The Mindstream Podcast today. Can you begin by telling us what the Beltane Fire Society is and what you do?
Guest Bradley McArthur: In Scottish history, there is a long period of time where you depended upon the land. And it’s the same for most cultures around the world where there was a strong reliance on the land in nature before the Industrial Revolution and everything. A lot of Scottish heritage and how people in Scotland have interacted with their surroundings has had that high connection to nature. And it’s always been at the forefront. That’s something that even nowadays with the climate crisis — and Scotland is trying to ‘punch above its weight’ in setting goals and targets — and dealing with climate emergencies. It’s really appreciating it. The natural environment is such a key part to us.
I think part of that is also [that] when people come to visit Edinburgh, they see the lovely hills and the scenery that you can get, it’s always had an ethereal beauty — or maybe that’s just because I’m biased — but there’s a sheer beauty to the landscape that you can’t help but want to connect to in some way. It’s the fact that Edinburgh, although it’s quite a big city…I suppose “big city” in terms of Scottish city. I’m aware that around the world are much bigger, populous cities…But it is also quite a green space where you’ve got a lot of trees and along the streets. You’ve got the botanical gardens basically sitting almost in the heart of Edinburgh.
[34:20] Appreciating that and how Scotland fits both its green spaces — its natural environment — in with what is currently our modern setting of concrete and brick and everything else, and how those two live side-by-side. And what we do is create an artistic reimagining of these festivals based on Celtic mythology. It’s very much based off people in Ireland, back in the day, had a version of Samhuinn; people in Scotland — and maybe England, France, in that Celtic sphere of influence — and various other people might have had certain things that would have connected them [also] to that time of year. And they would have recognised Samhuinn [as] ‘This is what we do at this particular time of year.’
So it was very much not solely Scottish and, where possible, where volunteers want to bring more Scottish elements to it, we give them the free reign to bring that in. Because we’ve had previous years, and this year as well, we’ve got people that are wanting to do some Gaelic singing and so they’re really trying to revive part of that Scottish heritage by bringing in language that used to be used before. Almost everyone in the country speaks English now.
Host Liza Horan: Hmm, that’s so interesting. So probably — for the first time ever — we’ve been restricted from these public gatherings.
Guest Bradley McArthur: Yes, this year there’s very unique versions of the festivals. To give a bit of context: For Samhuinn Fire Festival, what we generally have is a parade either through the city centre or, in the last two or three years, it has been up on Calton Hill. And that parade and those performances would incorporate fire-spinning, acrobatics, singing, very elaborate costumes, and it would be linchpinned around three core characters known as Cailleach, the Summer King and the Winter King. The narrative story behind that being that [between] the Summer King and the Winter King, there will be some point there will be a crossroads that they will have to come to. Whether they are rivals throughout and it’s a battle to the death, or whether it’s friends and they realise that one of them needs to take over to get everyone through winter. Basically it’s marking that seasonal transition that has gone for this time of year with these two characters embodying those aspects. Then the Cailleach being the force of change; the aspect of Triple Goddess in Pagan and Celtic mythology. She is the final aspect — The Crone — and she brings the change of the seasons when she awakens and comes. And that she is the sort of catalyst that drives change between the Summer King and the Winter King. It’s her bringing the changing of the seasons.
[37:29] Generally a parade, fire, costumes. This year with the global pandemic and social distance having to be a key thing we thought about, we’ve had many difficult conversations over the summer to figure out how to make it work and if it would even be possible to put on a festival or not depending on various factors. So what we’re doing is a truly online festival, which is quite new for us. We’re more used to playing with fire and being in front of people. This will be the second time we’ve ever done a digital performance. The first one being back in April when we had to drastically shift our (Beltane) Fire Festival to something online with a month’s notice. So we’ve had more time to prepare this time.
It’s been great. We’ve got stop [motion] animation, which totally isn’t possible at the physical festival on the Hill. But because people will be sat down online they can watch stop [motion] animation of acrobatics, fire-spinning or the story being told of The Cailleach’s journey. And we’ve been able to really explore the narrative side of things more. It is more multimedia than we’ve ever been.
Host Liza Horan: That’s great. How did you get involved with the Beltane Fire Society? What brought you, or drew you to it?
Guest Bradley McArthur: I’ve heard about Beltane Fire Festival happening as a teenager in Edinburgh. I’m not Christian; so, do I want to be Pagan or do I want to…? I was looking at different philosophical branches on life and different spiritual practices that might fit me, so I stumbled across Beltane in that way and I went, “Oh, that’s really cool!” I went along as a teenager to see the Fire Festival happen on the Hill and was mesmerized by the drums and the fire — the stuff that really gets people excited to come along. And [it]just totally hooked me as a teenager, of course.
And then it was several years later after I was finishing my degree and I was like, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. There was an open call-out for festival volunteers. Now give that a go! Why not? It’s something I remember being really mesmerized by [what I] saw. I’m going to go see how I get involved in it!
So I joined as a volunteer in 2014, which feels like a lifetime ago now. I performed in a couple of groups. I’ve been a torch-bearer, where they carry the fire around on the Hill. I’ve been dressed up the bird at one point. I’ve been in a fire group. I’ve been in a drumming group. I’ve been in a flavour of different groups. Then in 2017, they were looking for a new trustee to take over the finance side of things, a treasurer. I went, I’ve got experience in finance so I’ll join. I got involved for the last three years and (as far as) being involved in the Board of Trustees: When the previous chair stepped down, I put my hand up, “Yeah, I’ll happily be involved.”
It’s been a really interesting experience being involved in Beltane. It’s one of the last grassroots festivals taking place in central Edinburgh, I feel. Just because a lot of the other festivals have a longevity and [are] more entrenched. Meanwhile Beltane has always been, a little bit of this side grassroots-hippy sort of feeling to it, which sets us apart a bit as well. But it’s been an interesting environment to be involved in and one of the few festivals I’m going to get to play with fire at!
Host Liza Horan: I’ve never been at the Festival, but it just seems like there’s an air of mystique and wildness about it. Sort of that feeling like you never know what might happen, you never know what you might see. You talk about costumes but I understand there are people who are wearing next-to-nothing at times. Can you talk about what the feeling is when you are bearing that torch or your drumming or you’re dressed up as a bird or you’re there and you’re feeling it. I mean, what is that sensation like?
[42:24] Guest Bradley McArthur: The air of mystery is apparent at every festival. That is partly due to the fact that each festival could bring entirely new groups. In some ways, although the narrative is the same for each festival, the groups that come forward and the performances that happen do change year on year. So even if you come 20 times to the festival, you’re going to see something different each time. It might be different parts of what you see, but they will always be slightly different — nuanced in various ways — so I think that helps keep it fresh and nuanced and mysterious to people that come. And they’re like, “Oh, I remember the thing and…where did it go?”
Yet for the feeling of it, it’s a really interesting experience. The feelings that you get for being involved in the festival are partly influenced by what you’re looking to get out of it.
I know that quite a few of our volunteers will come because they like to hang out with their friends, and a lot of their friends and are involved in this thing. Some of them will come for the fact that they get to do these really crazy artistic things that they might not get to do in the day-to-day jobs or their day-to-day lives. And then we do have people that come to this with a sense of ritual importance. They really take stock in the fact that this is a marking of seasons and remembering that we’re part of a much wider ecosystem. It’s really cliche to say, but it really is just a magical experience.
My first time when I was involved it was terrifying to think, Oh, I’m going to be performing in front of between 3,000 to 10,000 people, depending on how many people have bought a ticket. And that moment coming over the Acropolis on the Hill and just going, Oh, I’m the tallest here! And I can just see out into these waves of people taking photos and watching. This is absolutely bonkers stuff!
Such a weird but wonderful…the rush of endorphins you get from this experience. It’s really interesting. It’s not just the experience you get on the night — it’s the two months leading up to that where you’re sitting with these 10, 20 other people that are in your group that you’re bonding with. You’re making friendships. You’re learning new skills, whether it be sewing, mask-making, how to sing in Gaelic, even learning drumming patterns. It’s such a whirlwind of experience that we present two months. We’ve watched like amazing friendships and partnerships come from the fact that you spend two months really getting to know other people when going on a shared journey with them that culminates in this absolutely crazy thing on one night of the year. Yeah, I don’t know if I could ever describe it with enough justice. I think it’s one of those things that you have to experience, to live through and fully appreciate how weird but wonderful it is.
[45:52] Host Liza Horan: That’s a great description. It’s certainly intriguing. How does one go about finding how to connect with a group who might apply to be part of the celebration?
Guest Bradley McArthur: The wonderful thing about Beltane Fire Society is that we don’t limit it to skills or experience that you’ve had in the past. One of our charitable aims is all about that skill-sharing and building that talent in people. A couple of months before the festival we do a call-out for people that might be interested in running a group. So this is really just to find people that have a vision or an idea that they want to attach to that festival’s narrative and what they want to do. People will put in applications like, “I want to lead a drumming crew and we’re going to dress as faeries of Celtic mythology and we’ll be drumming.” Or, “I want to do an acrobatics group.” They can be applications from people who have been involved in Beltane for years and have a lot of experience that way. It can be from people that have never been to a Beltane before or Samhuinn, but they’ve got expertise in an area. (Like) really good at singing because they’re a professional musician and they’ve got a whole bunch of instruments that they can teach people to play. We’ll happily consider them.
Once we’ve got all those people in place we would have an open meeting for each group to do its pitch for two minutes, just describing what they want to do and how they’re going to be managed. Then everyone (mixes) for people to find out [which] group is for them; does it fit? Then some groups might have tryouts. We’re very open and we want anyone to come along to this, whether or not you’ve spun fire before; whether or not you’re comfortable sewing a costume; or parading about in almost nothing, as some of the characters do. If you want to be involved, we’re happy to have you — just be willing to learn. Overall we want people to make sure that they try the experience: Share those skills, build people up, and let’s have fun doing it.
Host Liza Horan: That’s great. It sounds very open and inclusive, as you said, and just a wild adventure.
Guest Bradley McArthur: Our key festivals are the Beltane Fire Festival that we do at the end of April, and then Samhuinn Fire Festival that we do at the end of October. There are eight festivals that are possible under the Celtic calendar, but these are the two linchpins that we do mark in a very public way. In previous years what we have done is maybe one or two of the smaller festivals throughout the year but for BFS volunteers only. That’s a give-back to the people that spent two or three months giving up their time to help us put on a festival. We’ll have a get-together in December, and at Imbolc (February) we’ll have a celebration just as volunteers and friends, as well.
[49:08] Host Liza Horan: Do you think Celtic traditions are relevant today?
Guest Bradley McArthur: Yeah, I would definitely say Celtic traditions are worth looking back to. There’s always that debate around, Do we “glorify” our history? It’s been very prominent this year, whether it’s been the focus on various aspects of British history that are less than good. and I think the thing that we take from our past is that we’re honoring the fact that there was a way of life that happened before the Modern Age that was very much appreciative and understood that nature was a big part of it.
You weren’t separate from the land. You were part of that ecosystem, and your survival depended on how good the land was, just like [how] your animals did and your life depended on your animals, so take care of the land to take care of your animals. And I think that’s something that seems to be back in the cultural zeitgeist this…maybe not simpler time but looking at how we once used to be quite in tune with seasons and marking and respecting certain things where 100, 200 years of Industrial Revolution and modern living has created a different culture that people are starting to see it isn’t sustainable. And it’s something that if we look at what we did in the past — which was fine for thousands of years — maybe there are more things to learn than we think.
[50:50] And so [it’s good to] mark your heritage and — not to idealise it — but understand that you’ve got a shared cultural connection with everyone else in your country. That is something that you can either share with those people or you can share it with other cultures around the world and really [be] a melting pot of different ideas because [there’s] strength in diversity. Bringing those all together and learning the best aspects of them, and learning how we incorporate that to keep moving forward, building a better future in time…it’s something really key. Definitely reflecting on Celtic heritage, obviously, is very important and [toward how] we want going forward, as well.
Host Liza Horan: Very well said — beautifully said — and I think you’re absolutely right that I really do feel that there is a wave, a momentum right now to rediscover the natural ways of life. The Global Wellness Institute put their trends out for 2020 and so much of it was about natural health.
It was about us understanding our circadian rhythms so we can optimise our performance and really be our best natural state. They also talked about energy healing, and how that’s something that’s really coming to the fore and will be part of healthcare and wellbeing in the future. And they can be aided by technology, but this is how people got along for thousands of years. I think our heads have been so stuck in, as you say, industrialisation and technology and that sort of thing, that we’ve forgotten the old ways. And the old ways worked for so long. There’s wisdom there and it is relevant now. It sounds like what you’re doing at the Beltane Fire Society is keeping these things alive and showing how relevant they are, so I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
Guest Bradley McArthur: It’s been great! Thank you.
Host Liza Horan: As usual the transcript of this podcast will appear on MindstreamConnect.com with all the links of places and people mentioned. And stay tuned to Episode 7 of The Mindstream Podcast coming up later this month. It features a conversation with Claire Gillman, the editor of Kindred Spirit magazine and author of many books. We’ll get her insights on where the mind-body-spirit movement is today.
The Mindstream Podcast is put on by MindstreamConnect.com. Thank you for listening. This is Liza Horan signing off with love and light.