Flame and Impact

So. Now I know what ten and a half thousand people look like.

I was out late on Thursday drinking too much, so obviously on Friday night I was sensible and stayed in, didn't I?

No, of course I didn't. I went out with grahamb and had a pint or four. At least, I think it was four.

I was back not too long after midnight, though, so it was still a fairly early night and I'd had a reasonable amount of sleep by the time I had to get up. We'd been asked if a few people could be there by about ten, so i made an effort and got there not too long after. There was a bit of hanging around, and then people started finding stuff for us to do - shifting stage and step sections, putting the torches together, that sort of thing - until about noon when the walkthrough was supposed to start. Unfortunately the stairs at the front of the monument took a bit longer than expected, and there wasn't the option of not having them right. They're fairly important.

There was a slight flap when we found out that the fluid the torch balls had been soaked in might have been diesel rather than paraffin, but we settled it by a test burning (predictable? us?) which went well and we enjoyed. Rachel (front right handwoman) was giving out sunscreen, although she initially joked that only people who'd brought waterproofs could have any as it would be dangerous to tempt one weather god any more than the other.

Eventualy the go-ahead was given and we formed up in the space behind the monument. I've seen this bit a few times from the other side, so it was interesting to see it from behind, with all the hidden maneuverings involved. Some details of who lights who, and when, were sorted, and then we ran through the part in view, where another couple of questions were raised and answered.

Moving off went well, and we reached the fire arch quickly. Apparently a haka had been replaced with something else - which might as well have been a haka for all the words meant to me, but which my workmate Mari informed me gleefully this morning was Finnish (as is she) and was something about earth and fire. The performance was a short version of their planned one (which was true of all the points for the walkthrough) so we were on our way quickly. The other points went smoothly. The drummers stopped soon after we started walking. The words "You evil dirty bastards, you evil dirty bastards/Get your hands off the May Queen's arse" probably won't mean much to most of you, but I don't want to forget them. The other amusing point was when the Green Man was lying dead waiting for the May Queen to raise him and bring him back to life . . . there was a long, tense, pregnant pause . . . into which he sneezed.

That took us until mid-afternoon, and we bunked off to have a bite to eat and get our stuff together, meeting back at the Holyrood for a swift pint before going over the road to get changed and painted up. Nearly everybody was there on time - including the one we'd been worried wouldn't make it - and the rest trickled in, including the two neidfire bearers who were getting ready with us (that's them in the check cloaks in the fist picture over here, although one of them's obscured behind Blue Gav).

We were a bit behind schedule when we left, and when we reached the hill there were already a lot of people milling around waiting for dusk. There was a bit of wrangling and preparing (picking up earplugs and torchballs, making sure that the points that needed them had torches and balls) in the production area by the observatory, then we went round behind the monument. It was getting noticeably darker by then, and soon the Processional Drummers and White Women were gathered there too, waiting to form up at the bottom of the steps. The signal was given for the women to go up, and then the drummers, and then we were called. We weren't in the same place as we'd been in the afternoon, and I couldn't initially see Alison to stand behind. I got asked to stand nearer the stairs after that, so I'd be able to get a light.

After a few more minutes of things seeming that they couldn't get more ready (although I suppose it got a bit darker) and people checking if everything was go (including Steve being asked "Are you ready, my Lord Torch?")it actually was time to go, and Gav climbed the stairs with the two neidfire bearers (there was a cheer), who unpacked their kit and made fire with a bow. This took a couple of minutes, and then they got their ball of twigs, lit it, and lifted it up (and there was another cheer). Gav lit a brand from it and they took their fire back and discarded it (this being roughly the point when the first picture on that page was taken). Metal torches were lit and handed to them and they waited while Gav came back down and used his brand to light the first six torchbearer torches, after which I got back in line.

Gav then went back up the stairs with the Green Man, and they went down the front stairs to wait while the rest of the procession moved onto the monument. We were first, moving up, then one step down and out in both directions before stepping up into the gaps between the pillars and lighting the rest of the torches from the lit ones. The drummers followed us, moving northwards so that all bar the two in front of me were to my right, on the remaining two steps. The White Women came over the monument and moved onto the stairs in pairs, forming ranks of four on each level (second picture). Then, hidden from me by the pillar, four handmaidens then the May Queen would have come into view of the audience.

The Air Point horn blew three times, and then the drums started. As well as having a fairly thunderous noise right next to me, it suddenly got a lot hotter. It was obvious that something had caught fire, and I had the sudden thought that it might be me. I noticed than that we were backlit, and after wondering what it could be given that there were no spotlights around, I remembered the fire sculpture attached to the scaffold (third picture). Shortly afterwards ash started falling past us like snowflakes.

I could see nickys, Gus and Paul in the crowd very clearly.

The May Queen would by this point have woken and stretched, and with handmaidens, white women and blue men paid respect, by bowing, to the four points and to the audience. The green man was then presented to her, and the procession started to leave the monument. The white women had stepped aside to let the green man up, and now the May Queen walked down with him following. The blue men cleared a way forward and she moved off followed by handmaidens and white women, the drummers, and then on a cue from a blue man ourselves. With blue men opening a way between crowd and procession, we moved up to cover the whole length, with the stewards from the front of the monument interleaving, and by the time we had managed this the procession was almost at the path. I was beside or slightly behind the front right handmaiden, so I had a good view of proceedings throughout.

We wheeled left onto the path and soon the drum pattern and the women's step changed This is the part at which I had to dodge sticks or risk a broken nose. My nose was OK, but I didn't manage to avoid impacts entirely. There wasn't any blood or bruising, though, so that was fine. (Fourth picture, roughly)

The performance at the fire arch - firesticks, contact juggling and some acrobatics - started with something that had replaced a haka and still had something of the air of one. I didn't recognise the language (but see above) so wasn't sure what had changed.They had an offering blessed by the May Queen and Green Man, the arch was lit and caught fully during the performance and was unsurprisingly quite hot as we went under. Gav had been getting stroppy with a photographer who hadn't been adequately told that he had to stay out of the enclosed performance space around the arch. Eventually he took no for an answer and it was all fluffy again. (Fifth and sixth pictures).

I was told later that usually the crowd thins out to nothing just after the fire arch, around a slight ridge, but this year it was continuous leaving the blue men unsure over how to actually find Air Point. Their tall banners, fortunately, saved the day and we didn't end up hitting the road off the hill. Spreading around their cleared space went well and we watched and enjoyed their performance - an illustration of competition and co-operation as evolutionary strategies in avian populations via the medium of interpretive dance 1. They then had their offering blessed.

Moving off and reforming the procession seemed easy and fluid - I guess all that practising paid off, then - and we headed left onto the road back towards Earth Point. The crowd was a bit thinner now and we had a little more room, although the blue men, particularly Gav, were having to chivvy and occasionally shove the crowd backwards to make way. At one point a red man with a huge flaming brand emerged from the crowd and thrust it towards Veeg, just ahead of me. He seemed to react (or rather fail to) with admirable sang-froid.

Earth Point had a ring of dancers dancing around and with a circular cloth strip about thirty feet across, surrounding a pod in the middle. In due course they took the pod apart into sections to reveal a woman inside, who turned slowly while the others continued dancing holding their pod sections, and then they all formed a queue and had their offering blessed, as before.

Getting to Water Point was easy and quick. I got accosted by Mari while moving out around the edge (couldn't respond, obviously - apparently other workmates were there too, but I didn't notice) but found the right place. Their performance was intricate and somewhat hypnotic, with lots of fish puppets on sticks (mostly internally lit), which can be seen in the eighth picture as they were being carried later at the back of the procession (did I mention that the people from the points joined the back of the procession when it left their point? Well, they did. It was a big procession by the end).

The path to Fire Point goes outside of the knoll with the trig point and bonfire, and the head of the procession at this point can be seen from above in the seventh picture by natural light, and the fish puppets being carried by water point people in the eighth. I think the manta ray on the far right was my favourite.

On the way to Fire Point there seemed to be a couple of White Women ahead of us on the path, doing the step that White Women do around then. As we approached, they whipped their dresses open to reveal that they were actually Red folk, and proceeded to do various suggestive things with a stick and with each other. By the time we got there, they had gone. Around there is often, apparently, tricky as far as crowd control goes, and indeed that was where the closest thing I saw to an incident happened. A young gothy woman pushed into the procession and was bundled back into the audience by the nearest blue man. She might have had too much, possibly, because a couple of minutes later she was too far forwards again and as that section of the audience was moved back she keeled straight over onto her arse. I didn't see her again after that.

Fire Point doesn't get lined by torchies and stewards, but those on the left kneel down to give the rest of the procession a good view. There was a display of fire juggling and firebreathing (ninth and tenth pictures) and the usual gift and blessing.

The section on the pathway to the west of the observatory is quiet in terms of the crowd, as there's little access, but has Red Men being lewd from the slope and rocks above. I couldn't see them as I was practicing my thousand-yard stare at the time. I trust that those who did enjoyed the sight, though - it'd be terrible if that effort was wasted.

As the procession come round to the south side of the hill, the Red Men attack in force. First an exploratory sortie repelled by Blue Men, and then a prolonged assault of charges, lewd gyrations and human pyramids. The last two pictures on that page are of Red Men, but not at that point. The lefthand torchies and stewards hold back at this point and the White Women repulse the attack. On the righthand side we had to help move the crowd back to clear a space - normally entirely the Blue Men's job. Being mob-handed in a long column in black with facepaint and seven-foot blazing torches is surprisingly helpful in this task if, and only if, the audience aren't staring the other way at a group of near-naked red-painted nutters sliding up and down the hill, climbing over each other and beating drums.

After that was successfully concluded (they never stood a chance, frankly) we moved back between the observatory and monument to the stage. The crowd was quite packed here, but we made good time (We passed Nicky again. but I couldn't stop for a chat) and when we got to the dell around the stage people were mostly sitting and a path had been cleared. Somebody had clearly been working quite hard.

The stage section also went well, with no unexpected sneezing. The perimeter was covered, the neidfire bearers and court torchbearers were beside the corners of the stage and the handmaidens on the corners, and the May Queen and Blue Man did their concentric dance as the drums played. It built to a crescendo and stopped, and the Green Man took the May Queen in his arms and was immediately ripped to pieces by outraged handmaidens.

The end. It's a mini-adventure.


Well, following a very brief pause, of course, the May Queen decided to give the poor bugger a second chance and brought him back to life, now missing all his greenery and left with only a loincloth and some very fetching paint. She drew him back to his feet and he danced to the drums before falling at her feet. She took his hand and they walked off the stage and processed, followed by most of the other performers, to the big bonfire which they circled three times and then lit.

We weren't there, though. The torchies at this point left at the double to secure an open area around the bower. After a bit of grumbling from the people already waiting there we, the stewards and the bower attendants had a big enough area for all the performers when they arrived. In due course the court and procession arrived and were seated (the happy couple ensconced on a couple of high-backed wicker chairs which only remind you of posters advertising films with the word "Emmanuelle" in the title if you're way too old) and the various points and groups handed over their gifts. There were some hard fistingshandfastings too, then the Red Men arrived and tried to reach the court to do doubtless very rude, lewd and crude things with them. They danced to drums, both slowly and submissively (during which they crept forwards) and aggressively and boisterously (during which the Blue Men restrained them). When they reached the front there were some slightly bacchanalian scenes as they attempted (with, it has to be said, a fair degree of success) to seduce the white women. In due course, some then all started dancing. Shortly after that, everyone else (except for us killjoys in black) started dancing, and just after that the general crowd were allowed (nay, encouraged!) to join in.

And at that point it really was over, because it was about five to one. It was supposed to be about twelve, but the mass of people - ten and a half thousand according to those who should know - had slowed to procession enough that even after points being asked to keep their performances short we'd overrun by nearly an hour and had to clear the hill almost straight away.

After some sipping from hipflasks and general chat we left for the club, at the Caves. There was a lot of drinking, the odd bit of licentious behaviour (which as far as I can tell from people's later comments wasn't regretted significantly) and sets by both the Processional and Beastie drummers (both very good, but the former edged out the latter for me) and a funkish band that for some reason we ended up ignoring by signing Tom Lehrer songs over in the next room. I would say that it seemed to make some sort of sense at the time, but I'd be lying.

I should probably have gone home then, but we decided to go on the the Red Men's party. There were delays and arguing over how to get there (I got there by accident - it was in a completely different valley to where we'd been told) and I wasn't really in a mood to enjoy it. Maybe next year.

So, after a bit I went home, got about three hours sleep and went back to the hill to help take stuff down. It was pissing down and I was soaked by the time I arrived, but we didn't do any work until the rain stopped, and by then ample cooked breakfast had been distributed. I was there for about four hours, with three other torchies and assorted others, before going home. The litter was almost all gone by the time I arrived - Earth Point and Red Men, I was told, mainly having done that, and very impressive it was too.

Then I went home for dinner, washed the last traces of paint off, changed completely and went for a pint or two with my brother. Certain people were off to Falkirk, but I didn't manage to find out where exactly the interesting event was or what arrangements were needed. Oh well.

1. No, not really. Although there was competition, co-operation, and dancing in bird costumes.

That's a fantastic write up!

(Are you sure you made it home thurs night/fri morning? We didn't hear you at all!)
Well, I woke up in my own bed on Friday and went out to work, so either I was at home or there's another startlingly similar flat around here with the same door locks.
Nothing went wrong and the hill was left in good shape, so it'll be on next year. The 30th is a Sunday night next year, though, rather than a Saturday.