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Samhuinn is Scottish Gaelic for Samhain and is the name of the Halloween evening festival in Edinburgh put on by the Beltane Fire Society, mirroring the revelries of Beltane. Flames swirl and drums rumble while wreathed, draped, and masked performers revel and writhe in the space where the world grows thinner, before the dark fully draws in.


Samhuinn is translated as 'summer's end' or even 'the first of november' and is traditionally celebrated the evening before November. In Scotland, folk dressed up in disguise, to go 'guising' from door to door, performing tricks in trade for treats. Also called 'Galoshin', possibly after the play 'The Galatian'. The play itself involved a knight's adventures, but quickly became diluted, with Galoshan performances of men fighting with wooden swords and cavorting on Samhuinn for payment of a treat.

In 1996, buoyed by the success of the Beltane festival, the society began their first Samhuinn festival, reviving the Galoshan tradition in the process. A troupe of performers begin a procession from Edinburgh Castle, moving down the Royal Mile to Parliament Square, walled on one side by St. Giles Cathedral and the Old Parliament buildings on the other two sides. Generally the evening plays out like this: The Summer King and his fellow partiers boogie about, cavorting and enjoying themselves, ignoring the approach of the winter in the form of the Cailleach (the goddess of winter) and the Holly Lord. There are various performances by the over hundred troupe cast, interacting in dance, fire performance, or Red Men perversities. Eventually the two Green Men fight and the Holly Lord triumphs, killing his foe. Regretting this action, he asks the Cailleach to revive the Summer King, to retain a balance of the seasons. She does so, and then everyone celebrates.

The main spectacle of the evening is the drumming, which fuels the excitement, and keeps all watching tapping their toes to stay warm. Each year various bits change, with different costumes, props, and acrobatic delights. The battle of the Green Men always varies: The first time I saw this they were in combat with shields and fire poi, as stilt-walking wolf-creatures stalked back and forth below the stage. The costuming is invariably exquisite, with tantalising makeup that turns the performers into inner worldly wraiths or fantastic folk.

If you are ever in Edinburgh at this time, I urge you to experience Samhuinn. It's a free event, and space gets tight, but if you head down along the sides of the crowds you'll get a decent view. Bring a few quid to pay your penny for the guise. Bring a torch to light and bring away, to warm your home as the winter threatens to engulf you. Bring away the knowledge that, soon enough, the seasons will turn around again, the walls between this dim world and a brighter one will open again, for another celebration.

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