In August each year, during the peak of the Scottish Summer, the castle holds its annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a tradition that began in 1950. Now part of the Edinburgh Festival, the tattoo is a military display, but one which doesn’t rely on military force. Instead, it highlights the skills of the various military bands, precision marching, and other entertainment that has a military connection.
The tradition of the tattoo is a sad one for military men, for it used to signal the closing of the bars in which they drank. The origin of the term `tattoo’ harks back to the 1740s when the British army served in Flanders with the Dutch during the War of Austrian Succession. The term is a derivation of the Dutch term meaning to ‘turn the beer taps off’. Back then, beer was a very common drink, and its consumption was encouraged because it was safer for soldiers to drink beer rather than the polluted water that was the norm for the period. At a particular time of night the regimental band would play to signal the time for tavern owners to turn off the beer taps, and for the soldiers to return to their billets in order to get a good night’s sleep.
In the first tattoo to be held at Edinburgh Castle there were just eight items on the programme, but even so, it was a roaring success and as the event has matured it has blossomed, with many additional types of performers and technological audio and lighting advances introduced in order to make the tattoo both more professional and more entertaining.
The tattoo is held on the castle esplanade and seating has been increased so that now 217,000 people can see the performances live each year, with an estimated audience of over 100 million people in 30 countries watching the show each year.
Bands, dancers and entertainers from all over the world have appeared at the tattoo with some very unusual acts such as the Dutch Bicycle Band, who wear historic Dutch World War I uniforms whilst playing and cycling in formation, and the Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps who play and march very quickly in a highly entertaining fashion, have also proved popular.
The tattoo always includes a display by massed bands comprised of hundred of musicians marching in formation, and always concludes with a lone piper playing a lament from high upon the castle’s ramparts.
It is one of those events that you must see if you are visiting Edinburgh at the time it is playing, but the tattoo is usually booked out well in advance, so some planning is required to guarantee seats.