THE HISTORY OF PEEBLES BELTANE FESTIVAL
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. This 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.
More Beltane History can be found on the Beltane Week Pages.
THE BELTANE FESTIVAL MOOD
To the Peebles locals the Beltane Festival means a time to recall happy memories, dress up in costumes that you could only get away with at this time of year and a time to forget their worries. To ‘incomers’ the Beltane traditions are as much a mystery as they are bemusement. But it does not take long for them to feel included in the celebrations.
The town is covered with flags, decked with hardboard cutouts, decorated houses and red and white shop displays. During the week brass bands, pipe bands and lately cultural bands all take part at some point during the festive week.
The grown ups get as excited as the children and when required line the streets to cheer on the procession. At times the High Street can be 10 plus deep all trying to glimpse a view of the newly crowned Beltane Queen or just as importantly their child’s involvement on one of the supporting vehicles.