Edinburgh Bonfire Night & History Of Guy Fawkes

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Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day is an annual family-friendly event which takes place on November 5th. Locals watch firework displays, light sparklers and feel the warmth from bonfires put on by local councils and private companies. In Scotland’s capital, there are a number of Edinburgh bonfire nights hosted on or around November 5th. This guide details the best Edinburgh Bonfire Nights around the city to look out for next year and what you can expect if visiting for the first time. We’ve also included an introduction to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.

Visiting Edinburgh during spooky season? Don’t miss our guide to Edinburgh in autumn and things to do for Hallowe’en.

What is Bonfire Night?

“Remember, remember the Fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot”

In 1605, a group of angry Englishmen planned to blow up the Palace of Westminster in London, targeting King James I and other powerful members of Parliament.

The Gunpowder Plot failed after an anonymous letter tipped the government off and Guy Fawkes was found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder and a packet of long matches.

Fawkes and his co-conspirators were caught and executed on January 31st 1606. 

In 1606, the Thanksgiving Act was passed, enforcing citizens to celebrate the foiled plot which saved King James and thus Bonfire Night was born.

Previously, a stuffed model of a man was placed on top of the fire to resemble Guy Fawkes but today just the fire is assembled at private and public events. 

The fireworks represent the gunpowder which was never detonated. 

Bonfire Flames at night

Bonfire Night History – Religion in the UK

In a bid to remove power from the Cathlotic faith in England, Elizabeth I declared every English citizen converted to Protestantism.

Bishops were made to pledge allegiance to Protestantism and citizens were made to attend Sunday service or they were fined.

Pope Pius V didn’t take too kindly to this and excommunicated Elizabeth I.

In 1570, through a papal bull, Pope Pius V encouraged Catholics to depose their Queen calling her “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime”.

The lower classes couldn’t afford to pay fines and didn’t understand the Cathloic readings in Latin so many ignored the Pope’s wishes and converted without issue.

However, the upper class found Queen Elizabeth’s demand more challenging as their right to choose a religion was being taken away from them and they believed in Catholicism regardless of what royalty was trying to enforce. They became the “recusants”, the refusers. 

Recusants would hide priests in their homes and if caught by frequent searches, could face the punishment of death.

This threat along with paying the weekly fines of not attending Protestant service became taxing so many moved to Flanders where they could practice without fear.

After Elizabeth I died, Scottish King James VI took the throne making him King James I of England. 

Initially, he wasn’t sure how to handle the conflict between the two religions and allowed Catholics to live normal lives where fines and house searches stopped. However, Elizabeth’s  laws remained unchanged.

In 1604, King James parliament put pressure on the King to search houses and fine Catholics to stop an uprising.

The Gunpowder Plot

Some English Catholics felt let down by King James including Robert Catesby, who was soon to become the ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot.

Catesby recruited Thomas Winter who invited three others including Guy Fawkes. 
A London home was purchased close to The Palace of Westminster and Fawkes became a pretend footman so he didn’t look out of place hanging around the area. Fawkes went by the fake name John Johnson.

The gang began buying small amounts of gunpowder over a long period of time but they needed somewhere to keep it.

One of the members, Thomas Percy, created a plan to rent storage space under the Palace claiming it was for his cousin, Earl of Northumberland.

The perfect plot to blow up the Palace of Westminster was now in place.

However, the date kept getting pushed back and members of the Gunpowder Plot grew from five to 13 which inevitably meant someone outside of the group was going to find out about the plot.

The Catholic Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on the day of the plot and some historians think he then passed the letter to the Spy Master and Secretary of State. He was rewarded 500 pounds per year for his loyalty. 

On the 4th of November 1605, the Palace was searched but nothing suspicious was found until it was identified that there were a number of rented storage spaces below the Palace and alas Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding firewood.

Guy Fawkes Drawing

The firewood was removed and 36 barrels of gunpowder was revealed. Unfortunately, Fawkes also had a box of matches on him.

Fawkes was arrested. King James interviewed Fawkes on 6th November to ask if he had any regrets and he replied that the only regret was that the plan failed.

He was interrogated and it is claimed that his reason for having so much gunpowder was “‘to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”.

Fawkes was later tortured at the Tower of London until he provided a confession. 

During this time, Robert Catesby went from town to town telling Catholics that King James was dead and they should rise up. Forty men followed him.

On the 8th of November,  a fight with the sheriff of Warwick kicked off and Robert Catesby was shot.

Anyone found alive was hung in the gallows alongside Guy Fawkes.

On 31st January Fawkes was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Just before his execution he broke his own neck so he didn’t suffer the barbaric process.

Thanksgiving Act 1606, it became law that citizens must pray and give thanks that the king was not killed by the Gunpowder Plot and thus Bonfire Night was born.

Tower of London

Who Is Guy Fawkes?

Guy Fawkes was born in York, England in 1570 to a protestant, law abiding, church going family. His mother was from a Catholic family but gave up her faith to conform.

When Fawkes dad died, his mum married a Cathloic man and brought the family up attending secret masses in people’s houses.

Fawkes tried his hand at a number of jobs before moving to Flanders. He fought in the Eighty Years War in Spain.

It is thought he was given the role of keeper of the gunpowder because of his war experience. 

It is often said that Fawkes was “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions” taken from the book by J. Sharpe.  

The image of Guy Fawkes that we are familiar with today is that of dark hair, moustache and a hat.

The same image is used as the anonymous mask and features in the movie, V For Vendetta with Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. 

Guy Fawkes Mask

Best Bonfire Nights in Edinburgh 

Hopetoun House Bonfire Night/Wondrous Woods – Cancelled

Just outside the city of Edinburgh, Hopetoun House traditionally stages an impressive firework display.

This year, their new programme, Wondrous Woods takes place from October through to November 15th.

Trails of lights takeover the beautiful gardens for this family-friendly event.

Check the website for the latest news. 

George Watson’s College – Cancelled

Bonfire Night at George Watson’s College’s Scottish Love in Action Fireworks Extravaganza took place over two dates in 2019.

Expect traditional fireworks displays with pipe bands, performing arts and more.

Compèred by Malcolm Reid and Dougie Robertson.

Check the website for the latest news. 

Bridgend Farmhouse Bonfire Night – TBC

Bridgend Farmhouse is a community owned and run charitable organisation in south Edinburgh with a mission to ensure our now renovated farmhouse exists as a sustainable community-owned centre for learning, eating and exercise, where all can learn, work and grow together to develop a flourishing community and place.

Previously, Bridgend Farmhouse has hosted a storytelling afternoon and early evening bonfire night for families.

104th North East Scouts Bonfire Night – TBC

104th North East Scouts have previously hosted a bonfire night for family and friends.

The night included fireworks and a bonfire plus games.

Check the website for the latest news. 

Sparkler in night

Free Bonfire Nights – Check Information Locally

If you can travel, there are a number of free Bonfire Nights close to Edinburgh.

In Fife, Dunfermline and Burntisland host sizable events with live music, food stalls and the usual bonfire and fireworks display.

Tranent has a free event Polson Park, donations welcome.

Take public transport to avoid trying to find a parking space. 

Private Bonfire Nights

You and your family can host your own Bonfire Night but you must adhere to fireworks law which include:

  • No fireworks after 11pm
  • Only 18+ can purchase fireworks
  • You have to be 16+ to buy sparklers 

Bonfire Night Tips

Consider the following during your planning:

  • Keep an eye on the weather, if it rains heavy most events are cancelled 
  • Wrap up warm, there can be a lot of waiting 
  • Take public transport, parking can be a nightmare 
  • Arrive early and leave early to avoid crowds 
  • Arrange a meeting point in case anyone gets lost 
  • Be careful around sparklers 

Essential Edinburgh Information 

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