(First Day of May)
Arthur's Seat, a hill of over 800 feet, behind the Palace of Holyroodhouse, is one of the traditional sites on which our pre-Christian forebears were accustomed to light their Beltane fires at sunrise on the first day of May, to hail the coming of summer and to encourage by mimetic magic the renewal of the food supply.
"For the growth of vegetation, not only sunshine, but moisture is necessary: hence not only fire, but water had its place in the Beltane ritual. To the Druids, the most sacred of all water forms was dew, and to the dew of Beltane morning they attributed special virtue, gathering it before dawn in stone hollowed out for that purpose. May dew, in a word, was the 'holy water' of the Druids. Those on whom it was sprinkled were assured of health and happiness and, tradition has it, where young women were concerned, of beauty as well, throughout the ensuing year."
To this day, all over Scotland numbers of young girls rise before dawn on the first of May and go out to the meadow or hillside to bathe their faces in the dew. Arthur's Seat is a favourite meeting place, and nearby is St. Anthony's Well, to which many used to resort to "wish-a-wish" on this auspicious day. This picturesque survival of the old pagan rites, together with the Christian service on the summit of the hill, draws hundreds of people to the site. As dawn approaches, numbers of young girls dally on the slopes of Arthur's Seat, laughing and chattering as they perform the immemorial rite, and are regarded with amused tolerance by the majority of the arrivals as they climb to the summit to join in the Sunrise Service.'
From 'The Silver Bough Volume Four' by F. Marian McNeill (1968) 78-79.
'In Edinburgh the observance of May Day was never entirely abandoned. Long after the Reformation, sick people were brought to Arthur's Seat before dawn to bask in the beneficent rays of the 'new sun', while others went on pilgrimage to the healing-well of Our Lady of Loretto, at Musselburgh. In the early nineteenth century, says Chambers, the area gates of the Edinburgh houses would open about 4 a.m. and the servant lasses would emerge in their best attire. They were joined by the prentice lads, and together with other enthusiasts, young and old, flocked through the King's Park to Arthur's Seat, where a maypole was erected. The proceedings began at daybreak, when the bakers and other craftsmen began to dance round the maypole to the music of pipes, tabours and fifes. At six o' clock the gentry began to put in an appearance, and soon afterwards the servant lasses left to prepare breakfast. By eight o' clock the fun was all over.'
From' The Silver Bough Volume Two' by F. Marian McNeill (1959) Page 81.
Two noteable publications for the Antiquarian;
The RCAHMS do a rather nice 'Broadsheet' (Number 6, 1999)- basically pics and info on one side and a v good 1:550 map on the other for £1:50- see their website for details.
Other recommended book- 'Arthur's Seat and Holyrood Park- A Visitor's Guide' by C.R. Wickham-Jones (1996)
Not so much 'how many times or when have I visited' this place as opposed to how many years have I lived in its shadow. This is the Mother Hill of Edinburgh- visible from almost every part of the city and beyond. I was born at the edge of Holyrood Park and one of my earliest memories is looking up to Arthur's Seat from the window of my nursery!
Arthur's Seat and Holyrood Park are littered with sites from the Neolithic to the present day- forts, cultivation terraces, crannogs and at least six sacred wells. To the south and southeast of Arthur's Seat are three remaining standing stones intervisible with the Hill. The distinctive shape of the Hill can be seen from sites to the east such at Traprain Law, Gullane Parallel Cairn Cemetery and to the west from such major sites as Cairnpapple Hill. The summit of Arthur's Seat is still used in a ceremonial manner to this day- every May Day morning folk climb up here to wash their faces in the dew- a strange collection of both Christians who hold a service here to watch the May Day sunrise and those who have been up all night at the Beltane Festival on the nearby Calton Hill! The Park is also a popular place to roll hard boiled eggs at the fertility festival of Easter.
Apparently the name of this hill doesn't have much to do with King Arthur, but is more likely derived from the Gaelic 'Arn-na-Said' meaning Height of the Arrows.