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Issue 5 - The Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002


This article is 16 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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The Edinburgh Military Tattoo


For fifty-two years the Edinburgh Tattoo has thrilled and dazzled visitors to Scotland’s capital, not to mention the Scots who loyally turn out every August with their families to watch the spectacle.

Yet this extraordinary event, which this year sold out before it had even started, all began with a series of military displays enacted at the castle and in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens as part of an outdoor entertainment promoted by the Corporation of the City of Edinburgh and
entitled ‘There’s something about a Soldier.’

The man chosen to produce these displays was Lieutenant-Colonel George Malcolm of Poltalloch, in Argyll, a Highland laird and war hero, fresh from orchestrating a widely applauded military display at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. The Director assigned by the Army to work with him was Lieutenant-Colonel Alistair Maclean, later Brigadier. When Brigadier Maclean took over as Producer in 1953, he was effectively to transform the Edinburgh Military Tattoo into a spectacle which not only achieved international recognition, but was to inspire a whole series of Tattoos
around the world, notably in Copenhagen and Nova Scotia.

However, on the occasion of an initial pageant in 1948, the programme featured music by the Royal Scots and Highland Light Infantry (The City of Glasgow Regiment). Community singing took place at the beginning of each performance and there were displays of precision and agility from The Royal Scots, as well as demonstrations of Scottish dancing from the Women's Royal Army Corps. A contemporary report in The Scotsman newspaper describes the turnout of spectators, largely standing, as “huge”.

Compare that with today’s Edinburgh Tattoo audience of 200,000 in a little over two weeks, plus the worldwide television audience, estimated at 100 million.

In 1949, George Malcolm produced his second pageant, ‘The King’s Men’, a display on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle which included a Changing of the Guard by The 9th Lancers and The Scots Guards, as well as a selection of musical items. The audience was limited to 2,500, again all standing, and it was at that point that Sir Andrew Murray, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, entered into discussions with Sir Philip Christianson, General Officer Commanding the British Army in Scotland, to present a military show at the Castle as the Army in Scotland’s contribution to the annual Edinburgh Festival, which had been launched in 1947. It was informally agreed that a financial contribution might be made to the Edinburgh Festival Society and any surplus donated to Service Charities, and this practice has continued ever since. So it was that the Edinburgh Military Tattoo was officially born in 1950, incorporating a splendid performance of Handel’s Music For The Royal Fireworks from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra assisted by the combined military bands of The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment), The Royal Scots Greys, The 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers and The Highland Light Infantry, conducted by the legendary Sir Thomas Beecham.

Astonishingly, the Tattoo has always covered its costs, even with an average number of 800 participants, and such is the international prestige associated with being invited to appear at the Tattoo that there has never been a shortage of star attractions wanting to attend.

Nor, for that matter, has there been a shortage of stars in the audience. In just over the half century of its existence, the Tattoo has played host to British and International Royalty, to Hollywood film legends and to many visiting Heads of State, culminating this year with Her Majesty the Queen who witnessed a special performance in celebration of her Golden Jubilee year.

Featured in the programme were the Trompetterkorps Beredens Wapens of the Royal Netherlands Army mounted on bicycles, Dhol Cholom, Pung Chlom and Thang-Ta, a stunning martial arts and drum dancing display from North East India, the band of the 10th/27th Royal South Australia Regiment, the New Zealand Army Band, and the Royal Corps of Musicians from Tonga. Representing the British Commonwealth were the 2nd Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment, the Tasmania Police, The Cape Town Highlanders and the City of Wellington Pipe Band.

From America came the United States Marine Corps Albany Band, and Joanna Heslop from New Zealand enthralled the audience with her singing of I Vow To Thee My Country and Land of Hope and Glory. Combined bands encompassing 600 musicians created the Edinburgh Tattoo sound, and when the massed pipes and drums assembled for the grand finale which featured the 1,200 strong cast, it was a sight and a sound which those present will never forget. In his seventh year as Tattoo Producer, Brigadier Melville James and his team have once again exceeded all expectations.

As the spotlights changed colours on the ancient castle walls in preparation for the climax of fireworks, the evening hymn Abide with Me and the lone piper playing the Skye Boat Song on the castle battlements engendered an extraordinary sense of wonderment among the audience.

Times have changed, but the public’s appetite for pomp and circumstance most definitely remains undiminished.

The Tattoo has shown that it can be both multicultural and contemporary, yet retain all the glories of a heroic past. The enormous following of this dazzling spectacle goes a long way towards proving that for a large number of people from all over the world, there is still ‘something about a soldier’.