The Bright Fires of Beltane


The Wheel of the Year turns again, and we’ve reached Beltane!


For this episode, I’m going to lead with an explainer for the Celtic bonfire festival of Beltane plus its current modern context, then we’re going to do some farm related stories to tie in to it. Well, one infamous farm, plus a ranch I have a bone to pick with…


So we’re having a growing season episode, centred on pagan celebration of the fertility of the land where I then get to yell about some haunted farms. On with the show!


SECTION BREAK – Bright Fire


Beltane is the next Celtic bonfire festival after Imbolc, celebrating the end of Spring and the start of Summer. Growing both crops and livestock are understandably significant to any community which would like to continue eating, so the significance of the sunny season speaks for itself really. “Beltane” having one translation as simply “Bright Fire”, the celebration can be traced back to at least the Iron Age giving it a good 3000+ year run. Similar to Samhein, on the night before the first of May there would be a mass extinguishing of hearth fires to be relit from a communal fire, the public bonfire the celebration revolved around symbolically tying the community closer together. Cattle would be driven around the Beltane bonfire, and dancers would cross over it, as part of ritualistic purification by the heat of the flames (although an excess of alcohol probably also played a part in fire leaping).


This was such an important festival it very nearly made it intact to the modern day thanks to strong Gaelic traditions across Scotland, only beginning to fully phase out of British culture in the 19th century. In 1820 the Scottish village of Helmsdale recorded having its final Beltane bonfire, the Shetland Isles stopped lighting their fires in the 1870s, and then at the start of the 20th Century the Arthur’s Seat bonfire in Edinburgh was possibly of the last festival to stop. We’ve discussed Arthur’s Seat in one of the Edinburgh episodes, it isn’t a surprise this was one of the longest to hold out, but even there the fires went dark.


Yet Edinburgh didn’t even go a hundred years before the bonfires came back.


In 1988 a strange collaboration was held between a local band and the Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies. Angus Farquhar from the band Test Dept, choreographer Lindsay John, and folklorist Margaret Benning were all key players in an interesting plan to build some community spirit for the city: They were relighting the Beltane fire.


Unable to randomly start burning things on Arthur’s Seat again, plus looking for a more central easy to access location, the celebration was moved to Calton Hill. In no small part this was as a conscious move to try and reclaim the area from its then reputation as a cheap drugs and rough sex “No-Go” area of the city, with only 5 performers at the first Beltane revival and 50 to 100 people in the first audience.


The new Beltane never claimed to be a return to the original traditions, but more to be a modern celebration of that history. It retains some key cultural and mythological touchstones, with a procession anti-clockwise around the area that mixes a performance including the crowning of the May Queen, the death and rebirth of the Green Man, and the lighting of the bonfire; all mixed with a modern music festival.


It grew from here to be a massive success! The Beltane Fire Society runs an annual festival that frequently sells out with hundreds of performers and thousands of attendees. The previously notorious Calton Hill park has massively benefited from the move to reclaim it the initiative led, and the festival continues each year with the revival of pagan imagery at its foundation even though it has grown to something new and unique.


While the bonfires themselves went dark for some 60 to 80 years, the Summer celebration continued in Britain through the modern age with the May Day celebration. May Day is a public Bank Holiday in the UK, with celebrations either moved to the first Monday of May or else still on the 1st of May itself. This year the 1st of May being a Sunday will result in a full weekend of festivities across the Isles in a lot of locations.


There’s a hodge podge of traditions scattered around the various counties. Scotland always had its Beltane Bannocks made in bulk this time of year, a traditional oat cake, even after the bonfires went dark. Morris Dancing is a common, if mildly terrifying, sight across England and Wales. Hobby horses will go on a rampage in some villages, the Summer equivalent of the Mari Lwyd being a performer in a strange horse themed costume with a mission for mischief. Padstow in Cornwall has double the hobby horse trouble with two rival hobby horses that have a competing blue team and red team Old ‘Oss causing May Day chaos. May Poles still get set up and danced around with ribbons in public, despite their overt… Shall we say “fertility symbology”? Green Man rituals related to death and rebirth could be seen, or else general Jack-in-the-Green costuming, on the day nationwide. The May Queen will lead the festivities in a lot of towns and villages, a girl in a white gown with a crown of flowers symbolising youth and purity, which makes initiating the May Pole dances feel a little uncomfortable. While the bonfire celebration faded away, too much fun was being had to completely eradicate the pagan fun.


Not that there wasn’t the occasional attempt to eradicate these traditions, because there’s nothing a religious authoritarian hates more than “fun”.


A formal ban on May Day celebrations was implemented in the 16th century that led to country wide rioting. 14 rioters were hanged following the massive backlash, and there are some stories that Henry VIII pardoned more than 400 other rioters (although this could be damage control propaganda after accidentally causing a national rebellion because not enough people were paying attention to the Monarchy on May Day).


A more successful attempt to end May Day celebrations happened when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans took over the country following a bloody Civil War in the 17th century. The festivals pretty much vanished under Cromwell’s rule, the public celebrations in town centres at the very least got stamped out by Puritan legislation. Cromwell especially hated May Poles, describing them as “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness”. I mean… He wasn’t wrong, like, but still a spoilsport. Cromwell only lasted 5 years as the “Lord Protector”, his third son Richard who he appointed as successor not even managing a full year before being forced to resign and Charles II was invited to rule. Charles II hasn’t held up well in the history books, with an extensive laundry list of mistresses and pathetic foreign policy failures to his name, but he was The Merry Monarch who brought back a lot of the May Day celebrations as a part of The Restoration. Including the erection (pun intended) of a 40 foot May Pole in London’s Strand which stood for nearly a full 50 years in defiance of Cromwell’s attempt to stamp them out for good.


A lot of the older Beltane survived in May Day, and continues to thrive alongside the modern revivals of the older traditions. It’s a fantastic, if sometimes a bit crude, melting pot of culture that refused to be destroyed by authoritarians across the centuries which are well worth visiting for a holiday outing. Just watch out for the hobby horses, those things are bloody feral.


Now, on to the farm based mayhem to celebrate the coming Summer!


SECTION BREAK – The Old Arnold Estate


Mentioning the Perron Family, and The Old Arnold Estate, may set alarm bells ringing for horror movie fans: This old farmhouse is the setting for the first The Conjuring movie. While the ending of the real life story is somewhat less dramatic than the theatrical feature, paranormal investigators were asked for help with the strange goings on followed by the family moved out when nothing worked: The Old Arnold Estate is a pretty terrifying place.


Absolutely saturated with real life tragedies, it’s no surprise it ended up being a little plot of hell on Earth. Town records describe ten unnatural deaths on the property. Four people have frozen to death, two have drowned. One particular horrifying incident was the brutal death of a little girl by a farmhand I will NOT be going in to detail over. Three people have killed themselves, one by poison and two by hanging.


The man who sold the farmhouse to the Perrons had a parting piece of advice as he handed the keys over: “Leave the lights on at night.” It soon became clear what that was about, in the worst possible way…


After the Perron family moved in to the old farmhouse, a grab bag of paranormal activity followed. Something in there either really liked, or really hated, the kitchen brush which would constantly disappear to reappear in strange places. To add insult to injury with the brush vanishing at intervals, piles of dust would appear on the kitchen floor after it had been cleaned. Doors would open and close on their own, banging on the walls would happen at random to scare family members, disembodied footsteps were common, and you would get the occasional disembodied voice yelling at the living occupants. The children kept claiming to see ghosts, although these particular apparitions seemed to be harmless. One of the girls also was supposed to have levitated at one point, but that may be a case of the small child haunting the house that was as much a surprise to the spirits as the living. All of this is uncanny yet harmless, except that there was one exceptional entity who really had it out for the family.


The worst ghost alleged to haunt the farmhouse is one of the recorded suicides: That of Bathsheba. In life Bathsheba was said to be mixed up in occultism and devil worship, at one point being accused of causing the death of a neighbour’s child as part of a black magic ritual. Any time the hauntings got violent, the Perron family was convinced it was Bathsheba, who they believed held a grudge against the mother of the family Andrea for trying to take over as the household matriarch. When Bathsheba was on the warpath objects would be hurled across the room to shatter against walls, any glass was at risk of shattering on the spot, and in one particularly worrying incident a hole opened up on one of the daughter’s legs as if she had been stabbed with a spectral needle. A rotten stench began to fill the house ahead of the more violent paranormal activity, and Andrea Perron claims to once have witnessed the rotten head of Bathsheba appear before her to begin screaming about the Perron family getting out of her house.


This all ends in a dramatic exorcism in the movie, but in real life the Warrens held a séance that went wrong and got yelled at to go away by the father of the family. Whatever grudge resulted in Bathsheba turning up to chase the Perron’s, and specifically Andrea, out of the farmhouse the ghost of the witch does not appear to have manifested in following years as new owners came and went.


The most recent owners claim the paranormal activity is still ongoing. Still no sign of an angry witch, thankfully, but the assorted poltergeist activity is claimed to still be present. Plus a new inexplicable occurrence: A black mist filled a room for a while before disappearing without a trace, and happily with no sign of damage. Tales of the paranormal likely don’t hurt the ghost hunting guests The Old Arnold estate now caters to, the farmhouse being turned into a tourist destination for fans of the paranormal which recently went up for sale to the tune of $1.2million.


SECTION BREAK – An infamous patch of paranormal land


Okay, this is a long time coming and has been something that’s annoyed me pretty much since I first found out about it. This podcast is not likely to be someone’s first introduction to Skinwalker Ranch, although I’ll get everyone up to speed before I go off.


Skinwalker Ranch is a complicated, or at least highly contentious, topic. An incredibly active patch of land with huge amounts of anecdotal evidence that is frequently supported by other witnesses or else matching accounts at different points in time. But no one seems to agree on why this place is a hot spot for the extraordinary. Is it Ghosts? Demons? Aliens? Bigfoot? Fairies? Time travel? Dimensional weirdness? Could it even be local indigenous folklore, exactly like it says on the tin? (although some people have a weird aversion to accepting that as a possibility)


Other people take a holistic approach to this and simply shrug, saying it’s probably all of the above. It’s just that active of an area. As I have already lampshaded there is also, of course, the creature which it is named after, the Skinwalker.


The Skinwalker is an evil witch, and I mean that in a way that does not completely translate into English. When the Navajo try to tell you this thing is evil, they aren’t messing around. No ambiguity. No secretly misunderstood nice ones. Evil. And dangerous.


This is how JK Rowling managed to cause a controversy attempting to appropriate the idea for one of her Wizarding Worlds tie ins, trying to apply a modern European storytelling trope to the concept. That really isn’t how it works, and it upset a lot of people that she went full steam ahead with bullheaded ignorance on the topic.


It is a massive taboo to use the Navajo name of a Skinwalker, for it will attract their attention. I know this name, and will not be using it or offering the direct translation of the term. It’s easy enough to find, and may be different when written, but when spoken? Well… Don’t. Doing it just to show off is massively disrespectful, and punching down pretty hard. Just saying Skinwalker isn’t so bad, because that’s a weird English language nickname, as such not really a part of the taboo. Although it remains an awkward topic as they’re not supposed to be spoken about at all.


Able to shapeshift into animals, they have a wide range of curses and dark magicks at their disposal along with being notoriously difficult to kill. If they have taken an interest in a home they bang on the walls and windows, as well as make scraping noises on the roof, peering within as either person or animal to glare at those inside. More than simply being a nuisance looking to freak out the occupants, a Skinwalker tries to make eye contact as this will then give them control over the person they lock gaze with. They’re also supposed to enjoy their near immortality in the modern day by appearing suddenly in front of cars to try and cause an accident they themselves can easily walk away from. In theory dipping bullets into white ash before shooting them in the neck or head will deal with the witch, but in practice you’re best seeking out a shaman who can use rituals to reflect back the dark power of the Skinwalker against itself. It’s just not a fight you want to pick.


Which leads us back to that one ranch…


Skinwalker Ranch is named after a nearby feature of the terrain, what the indigenous Ute call Skinwalker Ridge.


Already, this ranch is and always has been a terrible idea.


Local legend suggests that there were people of the local tribes who sided with European invaders in the area. After committing many atrocities on behalf of the invaders they managed to end up cursed into becoming Skinwalkers, plural, at that Ridge. Something which normally takes dedicated initiation into dark practices, but here evil deeds led to the transformation.


Notorious for its regularly exploding livestock, and encounters with bulletproof wolves, some rich person is sat on that land hoping to use it as absolute proof of the supernatural. For now there are a few documentaries and multiple books covering these events, but so far it has all remained anecdotal. But there are big plans to do a lot more, on camera, and actually catch some activity from what’s supposed to be potentially THE most supernaturally active place on the planet. The sightings of strange lights in the skies seem to be the main driving force for the ownership of the ranch, some people believe this is going to be The One that proves aliens are crossing the vastness of space for 2-3 minutes of probing before going home. The 1996 sale of the ranch though got a Pigasus Award off of the famous sceptic James Randi for being a ridiculous purchase chasing unproven stories. It went on to be sold again to the next person with an interest in the location for over $4million in profit, so the ’96 buyer got the last laugh there.


Place your bets now, I guess. The investigation continues, and expectations for the ranch are high. I for one would suggest being nowhere near somewhere called Skinwalker Ridge with a terrible curse attached to it, but some pundits are hoping for fairy powered flying saucers piloted by bigfoot travelling through time being caught on camera any day now.


SECTION BREAK


That’s all for this episode, but maybe not for future May Days. I stuck to Britain for the Beltane side of things, 2022 being an exploration of the Pagan Wheel of the Year which is pretty Celtic centric, but there’s a lot more going on across Europe I should come back to next year. I’ll definitely be putting a spotlight on hobby horses at some point, they’re too fun not to get a deeper dive!


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