Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: History and Etymology

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is an annual series of Military tattoos performed by British Armed Forces, Commonwealth and International military bands and display teams in the Scottish capital Edinburgh. The event takes place annually throughout August, as part of the wider Edinburgh Festival (a collective name for many independent festivals and events in Edinburgh in August).

The word “Tattoo” is derived from “Doe den tap toe”, or just “tap toe” (“toe” is pronounced “too”), the Dutch for “Last orders”. Translated literally, it means: “put the tap to”, or “close or turn off the tap”. The term “Tap-toe” was first encountered by the British Army when stationed in Flanders during the War of the Austrian Succession.

The British adopted the practice and it became a signal, played by a regiment’s Corps of Drums or Pipes and Drums each night to tavern owners to turn off the taps of their ale kegs so that the soldiers would retire to their billeted lodgings at a reasonable hour. With the establishment of modern barracks and full Military bands later in the 18th century, the term Tattoo was used to describe not only the last duty call of the day, but also a ceremonial form of evening entertainment performed by Military musicians.

Although the first Tattoo in Edinburgh, entitled “Something About a Soldier”, took place at the Ross Bandstand at Princes Street Gardens in 1949, the first official Edinburgh Military Tattoo began in 1950 with just eight items in the programme. It drew some 6000 spectators seated in simple bench and scaffold structures around the north, south and east sides of the Edinburgh Castle esplanade. In 1952, the capacity of the stands was increased to accommodate a nightly audience of 7700, allowing 160,000 to watch live performances each year.

Against the spectacular backdrop of Scotland’s top tourist attraction, performers from four continents, including participants from as far afield as South Africa and South America, together with the finest modern production technology, are set to provide an abundance of matchless entertainment every year on the floodlit esplanade of Edinburgh Castle.

The action-packed programme will feature exciting contributions from the Massed Bands of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, Highland Dancing, the Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and the stirring music of the world-famous Massed Pipes and Drums.

An international flavour will be added by, amongst others, a Dutch Mounted Bicycle Band and South Africa’s Navy Band.

A huge audience favourite is once again expected to be the traditional and poignant close of the evening’s proceedings when the Lone Piper high on the Castle ramparts plays a haunting lament, before the colourful, cosmopolitan cast march off the Esplanade to the strains of famous pipe melody, The Black Bear

Book tickets for Edinburgh Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle!

The 2010 Edinburgh Military Tattoo Tickets Now on Sale!

Tickets for Edinburgh Military Tattoo 2010 is now on sale for general public from the box office. 2010 marks the Diamond Jubilee year of Edinburgh’s celebrated Military Tattoo.

The Edinburgh Tattoo is the most spectacular show in the world, enjoyed by an international television audience of 100 million. But there’s no substitute for being there, as part of the 217,000-strong audience over its three-week season on the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle who don’t simply watch the show but become a part of it.

In the glowering twilight, Edinburgh Castle slumbers, resting, waiting for nightfall and for the footlights that will transform it into a dazzling stage set for the world’s most spectacular show.

Down Castlehill, along the Lawnmarket, around the cathedral church of St Giles, through the closes of the Royal Mile and the narrow streets whose setts ring with history, people gather in the dusk of a late summer evening.

Turning their faces to the great castle rock, where ancient clans first settled the area, which was to become the capital of Scotland and where now stands Edinburgh’s mighty fortress, they join a crowd that will soon be an audience, rapt with enthusiasm for the unique spectacle that is the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Climbing the final rise towards the Esplanade, walking companionably together, eight and ten abreast, eager old hands who come every year but never lose the thrill of a Tattoo ahead, and new folk, many on holiday from other proud nations a world away, who are about to witness the show they will never forget…

Settling into their high seats, the fresh clear air exhilarating, the sky about the Castle deepening first to heather-colours of lilac and purple before darkness slips down and the floodlit castle draws all eyes.

The commentator – the Voice of the Castle – brings the audience together, cheering individually for their countries but united in an international fraternity.

French shake hands with English, Japanese nod smilingly to Swedish neighbours, native Scots welcome Italians. The Tattoo is family now.

A hush falls and darkness deepens, the great oak gates of the Castle sweep open and the swell of the pipes and drums cracks through the night sky. As the massed bands march out in their hundreds across the drawbridge, flanked by effigies of William Wallace and Robert The Bruce, emotions run high: this matchless spectacle unfailingly enthrals, symbolising the Scotland that everyone holds dear in their heart.

The tunes are echoes of a glorious and often tragic past, of freedom and glory and of suffering and loss … ‘The Garb of Old Gaul’ and The Skye Boat Song’ and the rousing quick marches, ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’ and ‘All the Blue Bonnets are over the Border’.

Every Edinburgh Tattoo begins with this vivid and intensely emotional display, and may it always be so. For these are Scotland’s finest fighting men (pipers and drummers are soldiers first, musicians second) playing the stirring tunes that over centuries have given courage and inspiration on battlefields in every corner of the globe. Lest we forget, we have our pipes and drums.

Now a dazzling show is spread out on the Esplanade, a whirling and colourful kaleidoscope of music, dance and display. It may be exciting – daredevil motorcycles at speed and the breathtaking re-enactment of battles, or exotic – Turkish music and Chinese dancers, or simply the best of Scottish – Highland dancers wheeling and swirling to a fiddle orchestra.

Such is the blend of home and international talent that the show is always fresh, exciting and alive, even for the many faithful fans who ‘never miss’ a yearly visit to the Tattoo. Over some 50 years of the Tattoo they would have seen performers from more than 40 countries – from Australia to Canada, Africa to Fiji, France to Nepal, The Netherlands to the United States.

International guest performers bring another dimension to a familiar pageant but it is the pipes and drums, which serve as the emotional core, the heart of the Tattoo which Scots, love fiercely and visitors quickly take to their own hearts.

And above all else the awesome presence of the Castle, great flaring torches lighting its venerable walls and creating mysterious shadow plays on the honey coloured stone.

Now, the audience gather themselves together for the finale. All 1000 or so performers are on the Esplanade, column after column of marchers, dancers, and bandsmen. The audience joins in the great chorus of singing and cheering, and applause and cries of ‘Bravo!’ before a hush falls for the singing of the Evening Hymn, the sounding of the Last Post and the lowering of the flags.

And finally, all eyes are drawn to the Castle ramparts, where a single spotlight cues the Lone Piper to play his haunting lament, the high notes echoing across the still night sky and across the dark city, as the flames of the Castle torchlights and the piper’s warming brazier flicker and slowly die.

Fireworks burst out against the black sky, but the spell is not broken for when we sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and shake our neighbour’s hand, the emotions linger and the heart is full.

Tattoo-goers all, united by international friendship, the shared love of a nation, its music and its traditions.

‘Will ye no come back again’? says the haunting old song and our answer must be ‘oh, yes and very soon’.

For tickets information, click here!