From a modest event in a park to an international spectacle, take a stroll down memory lane with one of Edinburgh’s – and the world’s – most unique events.
Edinburgh is undoubtedly the world’s festival city and there are few experiences quite like visiting Scotland’s capital city during August. Home to five individual festivals in the space of one month – including the largest arts festival in the entire world – Edinburgh truly comes buzzing to life in a way that is both impossible to describe and a joy to behold.
Amongst these celebrations of art and culture, one festival in particular stands out as a truly unique experience – The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Its stage is the grandest of them all – the ancient and majestic Edinburgh Castle – a structure that has dominated the city’s skyline for centuries. There really is no place more fitting for this astonishing event.
If you’re not from a military background, now is probably about the time when you may be asking yourself – why is it called the ‘tattoo’? In military terms, a tattoo is a musical signal – usually by a drum or bugle – that informed soldiers to return to their barracks. As well as this, it is also a ceremonial form of entertainment that was performed by military musicians.
It’s hard to believe that an event that has such a stunning, prime location actually came from much humbler beginnings. A little over 70 years ago, in the very shadow of the castle it now calls home, the Tattoo was developed thanks to an event on Princes Street Gardens’ Ross Bandstand.
Back in 1949, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, a performance called ‘Something about a Soldier’ took place on the bandstand. Such was the interest in the production, that the city extended an invite to the Commanding Officer of the Army in Scotland to produce a new, larger military show to take place during the festival month of August – and so, the Tattoo was born.
The following year, in 1950, the first Tattoo took place on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Back then, it was made up of eight different ‘items’ and was watched by an audience of more than 100,000 people across 20 different performances. And on the closing night of its first year, it played host to a very royal night out, welcoming Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
An international affair
Not one to rest on its initial success, the Tattoo started to evolve almost as soon as it began. As the years progressed, the event has adapted to suit the tastes of its audience, first introducing elements such as Highland dancing in the 1950s. Since then we’ve seen everything from RAF police dogs and horse-mounted regiments to a Motorcycle Display team and one time, a lone piper being lowered to the castle from an RAF helicopter!
On top of all this incredible home-grown talent, the Tattoo has also gone on to welcome incredible military performances from many countries around the world, including Netherlands, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, Nepal and Canada. Today more than 55 countries have performed, each embodying the spirit of inclusivity and openness that the Edinburgh Festivals, and Scotland as a whole, hold so dear.
Each year, these foreign friends bring their own unique culture and traditions and fuse them together with the very best of our military forces around a singular theme. In the 70 years since the Tattoo has been running, these themes have varied greatly, but have always taken time to acknowledge great moments of military and civil importance. Since 1993, the performances have taken on a more theatrical appearance, with clear historical themes. But, though the themes change, one thing has remained constant – the sheer look of joy mixed with awe on the faces of the spectators.
In the years since it began, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has continued to grow, both in scope and in international appeal. Not content with selling out its run in Edinburgh, the Tattoo as also gone on tour, with performances in countries as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.
This year, as it celebrates its 70th birthday, the event continues to innovate, finding new and exciting ways to showcase the incredible precision of military manoeuvres. Even though the event had to be cancelled in light of the coronavirus outbreak, the Tattoo were still keen to bring a little entertainment into people’s lives at a time when it is sorely needed. Their ‘Tattoo at Home’ range – while not quite having the thrill of a live performance – allows fans of the show to create their own experience from the comfort of their home.
As we said at the start, there truly is no event quite like The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. From the sombre, stirring performance of the lone piper to the high-octane feats of military precision, this event consistently sells out every single performance during its run, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators from home, and around the world, each year.
All we know for sure is, we can’t wait to welcome it back!