For three weeks in August every summer, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo becomes, once again, the most spectacular show of its kind anywhere in the world. For many of us, it would seem that the Edinburgh Tattoo has been around for as long as the historic castle where it takes place. However, in reality, the first Tattoo was not held until as comparatively recently as 1950. It did, though, quickly gain itself a place in the great traditions of England – ranking alongside the Trooping of the Colour as a great military spectacle of pomp and circumstance.
Attracting a total audience of 217,000 each summer – and with 100 million television viewers – the Tattoo is the largest outdoor event in Edinburgh and many visitors like to go there when they attend some of the other summer festivals in Scotland’s capital city. The visitors to the Tattoo break more or less neatly into thirds – one third Scottish, one third from the rest of the United Kingdom and the remainder being from overseas. In addition to the performance itself, there is an added attraction, The Spirit of the Tattoo, at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.
The Tattoo takes place every night of the week from Monday to Friday with two shows on Saturdays but none on Sundays. In the impressive surroundings of Edinburgh Castle Esplanade – and with rows of temporary seating perched terrifyingly high above the cliff face that is, in fact, an extinct volcano – the Tattoo is a noisy, colourful, awe-inspiring collection of displays.
One of the main attractions of the show has always been the pipe bands from both Scottish and Commonwealth regiments. They are joined by other Military marching bands such as those of the Royal Marines and bands from overseas. In total, over 40 countries have been represented by bands and artists at the Tattoo; the first visitors being the Band of the Royal Netherlands Grenadiers in 1952.
As well as music and marching, however, spectators are thrilled by some of the displays that take place in the arena. Ranging from motorcycle and dog display teams, re-enactments of battles and, of course, the boy climbing precariously to the very top of the ‘Crow’s Nest’, the whole show is a feast of varied activities and entertainment.
The emotional climax of the evening is always the lone piper, silhouetted against the sky as he stands on the castle battlements playing his haunting lament. After witnessing more than 1,000 performers combining on the Esplanade below, this is a poignant, moving moment. Touchingly, the first such piper, Pipe Major George Stoddart, who played in every single performance for the first 11 years of the Tattoo, was succeeded by his son, Major Gavin Stoddart.
Tickets for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo are generally available from the December of the year preceding the event. Details of how to apply by post, telephone, in person or via the internet appear on the official website.
Edinburgh Castle, of course, does present access difficulties for people with disabilities but the web site has details of how to reserve places for wheelchairs at ground level at the foot of the North Stand and also how to obtain vehicle passes to avoid getting the chair up the steep cobbled hill. Notice, though, that no vehicle passes are issued for Saturday performances.
Summer in Edinburgh is festival time and, consequently, there is enormous demand for accommodation. It is best to book as early as you can – even camp sites can be fully booked. Also, it is perfectly feasible to find good accommodation outside of the city. At festival time the transport links are excellent – Glasgow, for example, is easily reached by train in less than an hour – so many visitors ‘commute’ into the city.
The Edinburgh tattoo remains a dramatic, eye-catching military celebration and, on a summer’s evening in Edinburgh, provides an unforgettable experience.