The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Tattoo – a corruption of a Dutch phrase commanding a pub to close for the night so the soldiers can be sent back to barracks. The word also was used to allude to military music practice and now refers to elaborate and exhilarating musical performances by military groups. This is an incomplete and utterly dry-sounding description of a widening variety of musical productions around the world, though the spectacle started in Europe, mostly cultivated by British groups and the most famous is probably the one held in Edinburgh.

For three weeks and a bit each August, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo fills the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle with a spectacular nighttime display of bagpipes, drums and horns, kilts and tartans, dance performances and an imaginative succession of images projected onto the Castle exterior to fit the theme of the performance oat that moment.

Performance dates of the Tattoo overlap with the Edinburgh Festival, so if you plan ahead, you can experience both in a single visit to the Athens of the North. Each of these events lasts about three weeks, so the 2nd and 3rd weeks of the Tattoo also see much of the main Festival. In 2014, the Tattoo ran from 1-23 August and the International Festival 7-31 August. There are also other parallel festivals throughout August which may begin and end on different dates. Mind you, Edinburgh seems to be working hard to become a city of year-round festivals of all kinds, so you could probably find some massive citywide event going on almost any time of year.

I’d been to the Edinburgh (International Arts) Festival on my second trip to the UK in 1990. Later visits to this city were in other months and the only reason the Tattoo came onto my radar in 2014 was that I planned to be in London the first week of September. I backed up into August to plan some activities and destinations beforehand. It seemed this would be my best chance to see the Tattoo. Did I mention that I can listen to bagpipes all day? Maybe it’s my Scottish roots or perhaps it’s just that I didn’t grow up hearing them 24/7. Whatever. Love ’em.

The Castle Esplanade is normally uncluttered except for a clutch of parking spots but during Tattoo month, tall bleachers form three sides of a giant rectangle with the Castle entrance forming the fourth side, video screen and stage entrance. Because I left my travel decisions so late, I had very few performances at all to choose from and only a couple with cheap-ish seats. Somehow, I wound up buying a top ticket at the end opposite the Castle gate. Small consolation – the price included the fancy program booklet. In the end, the section I was in was absolutely the best place from which to watch the Tattoo. I was in the top row but above me were a few rows of VIP seats, each with a program and lap blanket in one or another tartan (hmmm… I just realized that these might be very much tied to who was sitting in which seat… as in clan). These fancy seats kept dry beneath a clear canopy. Well-dressed folks eventually filed into that area, including at least one bona fide Special Guest. I doubt these ‘special’ seats were available for purchase on the website – more likely house seats for various upper class attendees. Our night’s special guest was a Vice Admiral or similar, smart in his dress uniform. He sat in the center of the row immediately above me about ten yards away. Performers either saluted him or sent a representative up the steps with some sort of gift. All part of the pomp, a spotlight shone on our Guest at the important moment and he duly rose to return the salute or accept the gift. Impressive.

One thought kept recurring – pipes and drums do get the blood going; the right rhythm, a catchy melody and corpse-waking volume have enticed men to sign up and march off to battle for centuries… too many centuries and too many battles. Thrilling and distressing at the same time but forget all that for now and let the music stir your peacetime blood and keep you a bit warmer on a chilly, drizzly night.

Anyway… the Tattoo last year corresponded with the overall marketing theme for Scotland in 2014 – Homecoming. Pipe bands and groups of other performers came not just from Scotland but from (former British Empire holdings) now Commonwealth nations. There were groups from South Africa, Singapore, Malta, New Zealand, Tasmania, Canada, India among many others. When I first looked at the program and saw these notations, I thought I would be snoozing through some of the bagpipe-less entries. Not at all. The presentations filled the space with mesmerizing pageantry and the projections on the Castle walls tied it all together. For me, the pipe bands were still the best part; the massed grouping of all at the end was spectacular, capped by several minutes of fireworks and a rendition of Auld Lang Syne that included all of us spectators singing along and joining hands with our seatmates. I’m not usually inclined to join in with that sort of happy-clappiness, but this time it felt perfectly right; a terrific end to a phenomenal evening.

The folks responsible for getting the most money from the spectators do know their audience. I bought the 2014 CD which had been produced earlier in the month – a special addition to my collection of pipe music. Haven’t ordered the DVD. I was there, after all. In person. Live. I rather think no DVD, no matter how well-engineered, could reproduce that experience, especially since I don’t have a huge HDTV.

You should go. In the meantime, enjoy the slide show, keeping in mind that these are only a handful of photos from all the performances presented. I apologize for the vague captions; I think the performance order may have varied from the program sequence; can’t remember if the lone piper gave us Scotland the Brave or Auld Lang Syne.

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This entry was posted in All Suzanne's travel essays, All Suzanne's travels, European festivals, European music, Scotland and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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