EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Plenty of folkloric rituals surround the turning of the year and traditional May Day celebrations - often associated with pagan rites, the May Day itself probably started with the Romans as a way of marking the start of the summer season.
In Edinburgh, the most popular way of marking the turning of the season survives in the tradition of the Beltane fire festival, held on the slopes and summit of Calton Hill at the east of the New Town. This annual parade of dancers and acrobats wielding flaming torches is a modern interpretation of ancient Celtic festivities, but it is far from being the only such way of marking the May Day itself.
Arthur's Seat, in Holyrood Park, has been a focus for some other traditions which blend pagan mythology with Christian sites of worship. The peak of the hill is considered by some to be a focal point for mysterious ley lines channelling energy, and one famous tradition has taken place in the area for centuries.
It is said that a visit to St Anthony's Well in Holyrood Park at dawn on the morning of May Day, to wash in its water or the dew from the grass around it (and, some suggest, returning another eight times to repeat the cleansing ritual during the month of May) has healing or health-giving properties.
The poet Robert Fergusson described the ritual in his 18th-century poem Caller Water:
On May-day in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anthon’s spring,
Frae grass the caller dew draps wring,
To weet their ein,
And water clear as chrystal spring,
To synd them clean.
St. Anthony's well was one of seven Holy Wells that used to be found in Holyrood Park, but it no longer has running water. It is still observable on the path up to the summit of Arthur's Seat - look for the boulder with the ancient collecting bowl sitting at the front of it, from which its water used to be drawn - beneath the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel, a structure dating back at least as far as the 13th-century, but with no clear evidence for its date or purpose of construction.
The well itself has a long history of being a site of pilgrimage for those seeking miracles, and in the 19th-century it was said the slopes leading to St Anthony's Well would be well populated by locals trekking to secure the benefit of its powers first thing in the morning of 1 May, but would be nearly deserted later in the morning.
Today the reverse is more likely to be true, with Arthur's Seat proving a popular spot for visitors throughout the year, with a steady stream of walkers ascending throughout the day - if you're heading up this morning, keep an eye out for the historic well on your way (or down)!
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