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01 May 2006

Mayday, Mayday - Beltane out for help

The 1st of May is of course Latha buidhe bealltainn, the golden day of May and the start of the Celtic summer.

The Celtic year was divided into 2 halves - the dark winter half and the vibrant summer half. Each half was then divided again to mark the seasons.

The year began with the dark half at what is now Hallowe'en. 6 months on and today we enter the summer half. I recall when I was a student in Edinburgh that there were no formal events to mark this occasion, other than washing one's face in the morning dew to symbolise cleansing and renewal. Since then however, Beltane in Edinburgh has (with the help of the School of Scottish Studies) become something of an event with the Beltane fire festival now attracting up to 15,000 people. It also happens to be the day in 1989 when the Gaelic-L list was founded, a list I jointly managed for many years and which was the Internet's first list for a minority language.

Perhaps if there were more schools of Scottish studies around Scotland or indeed if we took more interest in the customs of our country, then observance of the start of summer would be more widespread. After all, Hallowe'en has now become highly commercial and American customs such as "trick or treat" are taking over from guisin'. By contrast, Beltane would be an ideal opportunity for us to look at our past in a more traditional way, especially as the US is about the only country not to recognise the May Day holiday which falls on the first Monday in May and often coincides with Beltane.

Beltane out for help - it shouldn't just be Edinburgh which celebrates this event, as an important part of the Celtic culture which has influenced Scotland, it should have greater recognition throughout the land. Especially as it often coincides with a holiday, it's an ideal time to promote culture and benefit from the knock on effects on tourism. Certainly the 15,000 people celebrating it in Edinburgh would agree and there's an opportunity here for other places in Scotland to take similar advantage.

Yet as a country we are sometimes reluctant to nationally embrace Celtic aspects, even though we have readily embraced the Celtic kilt as a national symbol. It is even difficult to find any teaching of Celtic customs in Scottish schools - so the children learn their "authentic Celtic customs" from TV and the High Street shops rather than as part of their education. Curious how we introduce Scotland's favourite novel, Sunset Song, as part of Scottish literature yet don't explain the more ancient standing stones from which the principle character draws strength. An opportunity missed that the main character Christine Guthrie 1896-1999 didn't explain it all.

Is it Mayday (help) for Scottish culture? Or is it the start of a renewal- a symbolic revival and the summer of a culture's confidence and growth? Certainly if we learn to embrace our nation's cultural past, it is a sign that we have emerged from the winter of the Scottish cringe into at least the springtime of our national identity.

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