Heather Burns has admitted that her extreme hobby can be a “turn on” for potential dates.
A former office worker who ditched her “crushingly boring” job in sales to dice with death on a daily basis as a professional sword swallower has described what she does as the “perfect unison of sex and death.”
Drawn to the dramatic street performers in the summer of 2014 while staying with a friend during Scotland’s famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe – an annual month-long arts festival – Heather Burns, 24, decided to try her hand at the perilous practice.
Having moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh, where she gives street performances twice a day for crowds of sometimes hundreds of people, Heather, who took two years teaching herself her craft, said: “I’ve always been drawn to danger, it’s the time that I feel most like I’m living.”
“There are a lot of risks involved with sword swallowing and if you get it wrong, you can very easily die from stabbing your insides – all of which I’m very aware of, but that’s part of why I love it so much.
“Working in an office really ground me down, and I lost faith in the magic of the world that you have as a kid when you think everything is possible.
“Taking up sword swallowing, which performers have been doing since before the Middle Ages, helped bring that magic back.”
Interested in drama since childhood, Heather wanted to become an actor but, instead, ended up working in sales when she left school.
She said: “I didn’t like the job and the people I was working with just weren’t my people, they weren’t interested in the same things as me.
“I felt like I was wasting time and not really achieving anything.”
But when a friend invited to her to Edinburgh for a week in the summer of 2014, Heather was fascinated by the weird and wonderful entertainers performing everything from comedy to cabaret during the Fringe.
Drawn particularly to street performers, Heather explained: “They immediately made a big impression on me. I felt like I’d come home.
“I felt like a kid again, with that child-like love of the extraordinary and knew straight away that this was something I wanted from my life too.”
Deciding to stay on in Edinburgh, Heather quit her sales job, found a flat and set about learning the tricks of her new chosen trade.
Quickly befriending the jugglers, fire-eaters, trapeze artists and sword swallowers, who she had watched in awe that summer, she supported herself with bar work, while she thought about which discipline to pursue.
She explained: “I was never interested in juggling or mime, I wanted something that I’d find really challenging. Sword swallowing really scared me, so that seemed a good enough reason to try it.”
Heather added: “I began researching it online and through the official sword swallowing society and was fascinated by its long history. So I thought, ‘Let’s go for it.'”
Explaining that techniques of the discipline are a closely guarded secret among practitioners, in early 2016, Heather asked her friend and fellow sword swallower, who goes by the stage name of The Mighty Gareth, for help in getting started.
Armed with his insider tips and suggestions, she bought a sword from a friend and began practising at home alone for a few minutes each day, working towards getting the weapon further down her throat each time.
“I went in at the deep end by using a real sword for practice, as most people use things like coat hangers at first,” said Heather, who had it filed down by a blacksmith to be the right length and width for swallowing.
“It’s really a process of gaining control over your gag reflex, as your gut reaction is to heave up anything going down your oesophagus, which, if you have something sharp in your stomach, is bad news because you tend to bend over and that can lead to internal damage.”
Taking two years to perfect her craft, learning to consciously control her throat muscles – only once injuring herself when she lightly bruised her oesophagus making it painful to eat for a week – she admits she was often sick during her practice sessions and kept a bucket beside her at all times.
Describing the sensation of having a whole blade inside her stomach, Heather, who made her debut street performance on 27 July 2018, said: “It’s a very unusual sensation.
“It isn’t a place that you would ever otherwise feel such a large object and you can feel your heart beating against the cold metal of the blade. But for me that’s really exciting.”
Admitting that her first live performance on the Mound in central Edinburgh was “terrifying,” compared to practising alone at home, Heather said the marvellous reception she received from an appreciative public made it worth it.
She said: “I was pretty nervous and I went quite quickly because of that.
“But nothing went wrong and at the end everyone applauded as I passed the hat round. So I was pleased.”
After her debut performance went without a hitch, Heather took to performing twice a day throughout the summer, with a routine that started with fire-eating and finished with an audience member pulling the sword from her throat.
But she is not unaware of the risks, especially following an incident in 2012 when famous sword swallower Hannibal Hellmurto tore his oesophagus live on stage and almost died.
She continued: “My mum Helen, 50, was really against it when I first started out because she worried I’d hurt myself. But when she came to see me perform she could see how happy I was performing so now is really supportive.
“And when I’m going on a date with people it can have an effect of both horrifying them but also turning them on because they realise the practical applications.”
Also working as a ghost tour leader, taking people around haunted sites of the capital, Heather rarely performs in the colder months, because of the danger of the cold blade sticking to her insides.
Her busiest time is during the Fringe, when the city is inundated with visitors, and she can attract crowds of hundreds.
“I try to work as much as possible,” said Heather, who is single. “I want to make a proper living out of this and travel the world. I know it’s dangerous, and sword swallowers can die while performing.”
She concluded: “I don’t think about that, though, and make sure I every stunt I do is done safely. People spend their lives being controlled by fear and then suddenly they blink and it’s over.
“I’m determined that that isn’t going to be me.”
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