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Issue 33 - To the beat of a different drum

Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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To the beat of a different drum

Roddy Martine looks at the history of Scotland's most spectacular annual event, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo which takes place in August on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle has become, beyond doubt, one of the greatest open-air spectacles in the world. For the past seven years it has been selling out almost six months in advance.

At the core of this thousand strong spectacle is the haunting sound of several hundred pipers and drummers against a versatile display of colour and culture created by performers from all corners of the world. More than 11 million people have been to the Edinburgh Tattoo, some 200,000 each year.

Another 100 million enjoy the spectacle regularly on worldwide television. More than 50 per cent of the tickets are sold within the first two weeks of their going on sale.

So what exactly is a Tattoo? The 1st Duke of Marlborough’s triumphant wars in the Low Countries at the start of the 18th century seem long ago and far away, yet it is in those wars that we find the Edinburgh Military Tattoo’s origins. The Dutch taverns which the British soldiers frequented would close to the cry of ‘Doe den tap toe’ meaning literally ‘Turn off the taps,’ and consequently ‘Tap toe’ became a drum and bugle signal which summoned the soldiery back to their quarters for the night. From this, the ‘Tap toe’ gradually evolved into a ritual to formally mark the end of a day, not unlike the ceremony of ‘Beating the Retreat.’ Later, in Russia, devout soldiers added a hymn of thanksgiving to the ritual for having lived another day. The habit spread across Europe until, by the beginning of the last century, the British had joined the Germans, Austrians and French in developing a spectacle with martial and religious music. The Tattoo thereafter became less of a military pageant and more of a public performance.

And what a public performance the Edinburgh Military Tattoo has turned out to be with the massed pipes and drums, the military bands, the thrill of the action, the precision of the drill, the splendour of the setting, and the richness of the uniforms. All of these combine annually to make this a truly magical experience.

It all began in 1946 with a series of evening displays of piping and dancing in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens. So successful were these shows, and so large the crowds which they attracted that, in 1950, Scottish Command (the Army in Scotland) and Edinburgh Town Council (as the City of Edinburgh Council was then known), agreed to co-operate in presenting a fullscale Military Tattoo as the Army in Scotland’s contribution to the Edinburgh International Festival, then in its fourth year.

Such was its popularity that it has since become an annual Edinburgh Festival event, with a roll-call of remarkable men serving as producers – George Malcolm of Poltalloch, Brigadier Alasdair Maclean, Brigadier Jack Sanderson, Lt-Colonel Leslie Dow, Major Michael Parker and Brigadier Melville Jameson – each bringing an individual style to the programme and in turn enhancing the Tattoo’s reputation.

That said, it is important to remember that the Edinburgh Tattoo is a non-profit making charity and that surplus funds are split equally between the Army Benevolent Fund and the Edinburgh International Festival. The Tattoo must surely be one of the few shows on earth which annually covers its costs and passes its profits on to the greater good.

However, nothing stands still in the world of entertainment, and the variety, thrills and excitement of putting on a great show are constantly evolving, not just in its home-base, but overseas as well.

In 2000, for the first time, the Edinburgh Tattoo went overseas to Wellington, New Zealand. Afull size-replica backdrop of Edinburgh Castle was erected and a cast recruited from United Kingdom and New Zealand forces performed four shows to 80,000 spectators every night during the New Zealand Arts Festival.

In 2005, the Tattoo was invited to visit Australia, where they performed to full houses on six nights in the Aussie Stadium, Sydney. The show was titled ‘Salute to Australia,’ and was seen by a total audience of 160,000.

That same year, with a cast of 1,000 performers, including the Massed Pipes and Drums of seven of the eight Scottish Regiments, images were projected on the walls of Edinburgh Castle for the first time; these new backdrops not only support the performers, but also help to convey the theme and message of the event, bringing the very latest technology to the ancient fortress.

This year, with the retirement of Melville Jameson after 10 years, the 58th Edinburgh Tattoo team has an incoming chief executive and producer in the person of Major General Euan Loudon, and it promises to be bigger and better than ever. Part of the challenge he will oversee this year will be the introduction of new spectator stands.

But as for the show, its musical tradition will not disappoint. The world-renowned Massed Pipes and Drums together with the Massed Military Bands featuring the Household Cavalry’s Mounted Band of the Blues & Royals and the Bands of the Royal Regiment of Scotland are among those scheduled to be in attendance. Performers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America will take part, and a special extravaganza will celebrate the Diamond Wedding Anniversary of HM the Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.

As the music swells into the night sky and over the surrounding landscape of Scotland’s Capital, I defy anyone not to be moved by the sights and the sounds on the stage below them. When the Lone Piper struts and plays Sleep Dearie Sleep or Lest We Forget on the high battlements of the ancient fortress at the end of the night, it is a shared experience for the hair to rise on the back of the neck.

On the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, and behind the scenes, this show runs on military discipline, and nobody else but the Edinburgh Tattoo team could put on an event of this kind together with such matchless innovation and flare.

The times in which we live may be constantly changing, but the public’s appetite for pomp and circumstance remains undiminished. The enduring following enjoyed by the Edinburgh Tattoo just goes to prove that for a large number of people all over the world there is still something extraordinary and compelling about the skirl of the Scottish bagpipe, the flash of tartan, the bugle call, and the marching drums and dancing of many nations in harmony. Long may it last.

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo 2007 takes place from 3-25 August: