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Beltane Festival (Peebles)

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      29.11.2005 17:20
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      Tradtion which hasn't changed in over 100 years

      The Beltane festival is a yearly local celebration in Peebles involving two traditions intertwining with each other to create a week of festivities for both the younger and the older generation. As a local I grew up with the Beltane which involves the three local Primary Schools creating a Court with the main ceremony on the Saturday when the Beltane Queen is crowned.

      The festival runs every June and the Crowing of the Queen always falls on the third Saturday that month (usually around June 21st) the history of it marking the beginning of summer.

      The main festivities revolve around two main participants which are both chosen because they mark two of the best people that can go on and represent the town. The Beltane Queen is chosen from the Primary 7 class (aged around 12). Her court is also from the P7 class chosen by the pupils and the teachers. She later switches on the towns Christmas lights in December. I wasn't lucky enough to be crowned Queen but I did take the highest position in my school out of the girls. The Cornet is seen as one of the best men in the town, nominated by the locals and the Committee make the final decision. This Cornet then can choose a Lass. They represent the town at other festivals in the Scottish Borders.

      The festival runs for a full week beginning on the Sunday as the festival starts relatively quietly and builds up to the Coronation on the Saturday.

      I have always enjoyed the Beltane because it is a chance to celebrate but the best thing about it is the town itself joining in. The streets, houses, shop windows are decorated. The kids from the 3 schools have a chance to dress up. I was involved every year beginning as being dressed up as a mouse, to a fairy, Jasmine Girl, Victorian Lady… It was fantastic. The real joy came in my last year at Primary School when I was Second Maid in the Court. My mum was ecstatic and phoned everyone she knew so when that Saturday finally came, we had the whole family up (even the ones from England!).

      For those that may be coming as a visitor there is a few days where the place is quiet - only involving the kids such as the disco on the Monday night or the concert on the Thursday which even the locals find hard to get tickets to. The celebrations begin on the Sunday with a service at the Cross Kirk. It's given by the clergy and the Warden of Neidpath which the public are welcome to join but it isn't a long service and knowing how I felt, it can be rather boring. Depending on the weather, Tuesday is a fun sports day for all ages. The races run by classes but no matter how many years I came last everyone is rewarded with an ice cream… including parents… they don't get away with it because there are races for them too. Really I just did it for the prizes but never won.

      The Wednesday night is one of the better days as the festival gathers momentum. Similar to Sunday there are quite a few services such as 'Bussing the Colours' (pinning the names of the Cornet and his Lass to the Standard) as the Cornet is Installed. Compulsory for those involved in the Queen's Court it can be a long drawn out event but at 8:30pm the March Riders gather. This can involve around 250+ people on horseback as they march around the town and Ford the Tweed (personally I just go to laugh at those who fall in the river). The riders then make their way up to the Golf Course for the races. I always get lost in my town but everyone that is at Haylodge Park normally makes their way up there so there is always someone to follow. The night ends with the Cornets Reel on the High Street and later the presentation of Cups to the winners of the races. This is a good night after starting slower and one of the good traditions that is kept up. This last event can go on until the late hours so I'm normally tired.

      Friday is even better than the Wednesday because this is where the town begins to get together as a whole and join in the celebrations. This is the night of the Fancy Dress Parade. I would enter every year with my sister and my friends and we were quite successful in winning something. The judging begins at 7pm but preparation begins weeks in advance to get a good costume… things I was in the past included 'Three Crows' (sat upon a wall), Beatrix Potter characters, 'P-p-p-pick up a Penguin' and '3 Blind Mice'. Once the judging is over, everyone takes a set route around the town - the streets packed with locals cheering to everyone. This isn't just for the youngsters - anyone is free to join in. There are dances by the YM boys and the Rugby Boys found on the High Street (my brother - a YM dancer - is always dressed as a girl!). The parade again is dependant on the weather… e.g. this year (2005) was pouring with rain so the route was cut short. Everyone needs to get to bed early because Saturday is an early start and a long day for some.

      Beginning at 7am on the Saturday is the judging of the decorated houses. It used to just be those that were something important in the Beltane but now people decorate every year if the want to so it is always great to see what they have. The kids gather at Halyrude School before marching along the streets to the Parish Church for the ceremony. The Queen and Maids arrive by horse drawn carriages. Songs are sung including 'The Beltane Song', 'The Beltane Coronation Ode' and 'Come Ower the Hills Tae Peebles'. In 1997 it was pouring with rain as we stood on the steps - the Queen's red velvet robe filled with puddles which must have also happened in 2005. She carries her sceptre, she has a red carpet and the crown is carried on a red velvet cushion. Proclamations are read from well wishers to the whole town. These are usually from Ex-Peebleans now living in places as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The crowning always brings the sun out reflecting on the happiness of the packed town. At 11:15am, the kids descend the church steps to the decorated Lorries for a trip around the whole town. Everyone seems to be out to see this and there never seems to be an empty street. I lost my voice cheering one year! For the youngsters this day ends around 2pm although the dancing continues on the street and there are also the shows over on Victoria Park with the waltzers, dodgems etc. but the prices for these seem to go up every year.

      The pubs are filled and spill out onto the streets during the Beltane so you will be hard pressed to get a drink. The whole week of activities is free to watch and is great if the sun is shining. Many of the local hotels can be fully booked so best to book early if planning a visit and travel especially on the Friday night - Saturday is out of the question with the streets filled with people. Police surround the area to direct traffic where possible.

      The fascination with the festival for a local wears off after being involved through Primary school because there isn't anything really to do if you are not interested in watching the parades etc. For people visiting, this is a great festival and of course if you have kids at the schools or even just dressing up on the Friday its gets you involved. My Grandparents visited for my role as Second Maid and really enjoyed themselves being seated almost at the front of the church steps to watch it. The weather is very changeable so bring a brolly or find a shop doorway to shelter in.

      I'd highly recommend it if you are interested in seeing a traditional local festival because each year revolves around the same programme which is only ever altered by the bad weather conditions. Ok so as I have grown up this festival doesn't appeal to me as much but it is still enjoyable to see everyone dressed up and brings back a lot of happy memories from each year I was involved.

      How to get there: Peebles is 23 miles south of Edinburgh so there is easy access by bus costing £3.50 (single) or £6.30 (return) by bus (number 62 - First Bus). Cars must not be parked on the route the March Riders or Lorries take to prevent damage.

      More info: http://www.peeblesbeltanefestival.co.uk/
      For places to stay and other info: http://www.peebles.info

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    • Product Details

      Peebles Beltane Festival is a festival of local legend, history and tradition. Beltane is a festival that marks the return of summer with the lighting of fires; where people could burn their winter bedding and floor coverings, ready to be replaced afresh. Referred to as a Gaelic ceremony, this type of festival has been celebrated for thousands of years throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. In Peebles, Beltane was originally held on May 1st. It is recorded that James I witnessed this festival in the 15th century. The continuation of the festival was not kept and eventually faded away. In the 1870s an attempt was made to revive the Riding of the Marches of the Ancient and Royal Burgh of Peebles, this involved horsemen taking to the saddle and riding round the boundaries to ensure the safety of the Royal and Ancient Burgh. This attempt failed, only again to be attempted in 1897. The 1897 revival was more successful due to this year being the Diamond Jubilee year of Queen Victoria. This cermony was carried out by the town treasurer who was to become the first Cornet, he was also accompanied by two mounted supporters. The Cornet, as local legend has it, was supposed to be the most eligible bachelor, this is not strictly true. The Cornet was chosen as a young man most deemed to be a worthy son of Peebles and on occassion act as an ambassador for the royal burgh. Two years later the inclusion of the Beltane Queen ceremony was added to the Riding of the Marches. This coronation ceremony enhanced the already successful Marches.The first crowning ceremony took place at the Mercat Cross but it was soon realised that this was an event that would grow and was moved to its current position on the Parish Church steps the following year. This ceremony took place on the nearest Friday to Midsummers Day. The first father and son cornet combination was completed in 1903 with the installation of William Johnstone as Cornet, an honour bestowed on his father, I.C. Johnstone two years previous. The crowning ceremony was moved to the Saturday in 1910 to allow more people to witness the event. The original Beltane Queen was aged 13 or 14 but just before the outbreak of the second world war it was changed to a girl aged 11 or 12. This was also partly in response to the 13 and 14 year olds now being educated at the High School. The year of 1924 saw the inclusion for the first of the Cornets Lass. She was to provide support and assist with the duties of which the Cornet has many. In 1955 to encourage more colour to the festive occasion the Peebles Merchants donated a shield to be awarded to the best decorated house. The shield continued in use until it was withdrawn in 1992 and replaced by the Community Council Cup. Many of the houses are decorated out of Beltane spirit and pride, as one of their family members is a principle or member of the court. In latter years this has proved, not to be just the reason, as people of Peebles have entered into the spirit even if no relative has a main role in the festival. Around 1960 dresses were introduced for the Queen and maids, previously a ceremonial robe was worn by the queen, with clothes provided by parents for the occasion. This decision was to the relief of the parents of the high cost of the dresses. The Queen’s dress was originally donated by a Beltane admirer in the U.S.A. For the first time, a First Courtier was to take on the honour of Cornet. The was the pleasure of Tom Swanston, First Courtier in 1954 and Cornet in 1965. After much deliberation the Beltane committee decided to change the gifts given to the Beltane Queen, Chief Maid, First and Second Courtiers. Originally a gold bangle was given to the two main girls, and in later years medals were introduced for the boys. In the 1930 these items were replaced with watches, at the time this was a substantial gift, and with the exception of the war years where Saving Certificates were used, this practice continued until 1995. Because of the ever changing fashion trends a watch was now deemed not practical, it was decided to revert back to the presentation of gold bangles and medals. The Beltane festival in effect has two centenaries, 1997 and 1999, The first for the celebration of the Riding of the Marches and the second for the Crowning of the Queen. Each went on with extra atmosphere to provide an additional feel to the event. Extra measure were taken to bring in the centenary with all the pomp and pleasure is deserved. In 2001 the Wednesday Evening was expected to be somewhat subdued due to the current foot and mouth crises covering the whole of the UK. Travelling around the town bounderies was just not possible and the horse cavalcade had to be posponed. The cornet from the previous year, David McGrath, was asked to stay on after much deliberation by the Beltane Committee, on whether the festival should be staged at all. David agreed it was not fair to elect a new cornet, and as he had enjoyed it so much took the reigns again. Because of the restriction on horses David made an appeal for everyone to ‘Get on their bikes’ and support the cornet on an albeit shortend route around town. The people of Peebles duly obliged and whole families turned out making an estimated 1000 plus cyclists following the cornet and his supporters on the Wednesday night. This one off event made sure that the festival, unlike other Borders festivals still retained most of its atmosphere and fun enjoyed by all.