Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo; Edinburgh Castle; bagpipes; pipeband
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August 2014.
Celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is one of Scotland's premier annual cultural events. Music! Spectacle! Dance! Fireworks!

And bagpipes.

{Ed.'s note: Umm, that's only one piper.}
Lots of bagpipes.

Two bagpipers
{Ed.'s note: You said "lots." That's only two.}
No, truly, lots and lots of bagpipes.

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo; bagpipes; massed pipebands
{Ed.'s note: Better.}
Over three weeks in August, the Tattoo presents approximately 1,000 performers each night from all over the world. Military bands, tribal dancers, precision drumlines, dancers, soldiers, and fiddlers parade through in a smörgåsbord of bite-sized entertainment. They even throw in a Shetland pony.

Cruachan IV
The Royal Regiment of Scotland's mascot, Cruachan IV, a Shetland pony. His predecessor, Cruachan III, is a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II; she visits with the pony whenever she's in Scotland.
The twenty-four annual performances draw a cumulative crowd of more than 200,000. Typically, roughly one third of the crowd hails from Scotland, another third from the rest of the U.K., and the final third from around the world. Tickets for the event are sold months in advance and this year is the Tattoo's 16th consecutive sellout. The BBC films five of the evening shows, then condenses its footage into one representative broadcast each year. It's shown in more than 30 countries and draws millions of viewers.

So, what exactly does "Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo" mean? It is "Royal" because Queen Elizabeth II bestowed that title in 2010 to celebrate the 60th anniversary. "Edinburgh," of course, because that's where it's held. "Military" because the performers are primarily, though not exclusively, members of military regiments around the world.

{Ed.'s note: No shit, Sherlock. We figured out those parts ourselves. What does tattoo mean?}

Glad you asked. The etymology of "tattoo" derives from beer drinking. No joke. In the 1740s, during the War of the Austrian Succession (though at least one source asserts as far back as the early 1600s) British troops were garrisoned in Belgium and the Netherlands. Every evening, drummers from the military garrisons were sent out to alert the soldiers to return to their barracks. The drumming signaled the barkeeps to doe den tap toe (Dutch for "turn off the tap") and send the soldiers home. Drumming continued until curfew. "Toe" is pronounced "too" in Dutch, and English speakers gradually morphed "tap-toe" into "taptoo" and then "tattoo." As the years went on and the military gained full bands, the "tattoo" became a type of evening barracks entertainment.

(Used with permission from
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo's lineup changes annually, though the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy and Marines take turns as the "lead" service each year. At the end of the show, the massed pipes and drums join the massed military bands for a finale, which generally includes the national anthem and Auld Lang Syne, a flag lowering, and a lone piper on the castle wall playing a lament. Then the pipers and bands march out of the stadium and down the Royal Mile.

For your viewing pleasure, here's a bootleg version of the 2011 march out of the stadium. The song played at the beginning is probably the most-recognized bagpipe tune ever. For your edification, it's called Scotland the Brave, one of Scotland's unofficial national anthems. You can certainly find BBC versions of the finale on YouTube, but I think the bootleg copy has its own charm:

Besides a few weekend afternoon shows, the Tattoo starts at 9:00 pm every night. Around 8:00 pm, the crowd of ticket holders shuffles up the hill to the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle. A temporary arena is erected each year on the esplanade. With a cost in 2011 of £16 million (~$26.8 million at current exchange rates), the current arena is a substantial structure which takes about a month to set up and to take down. Most summertime tourists tour the castle with an empty arena in front of it. But since the Tattoo brings in around £100 million every year for Scotland's economy, the arena has earned its keep.

Queue for Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
They call this the "queue" to enter the stadium, but it's really just a horde of ticket holders inching their way up the hill.
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo; Edinburgh Castle esplanade
View of the Edinburgh Castle from the esplanade.
Edinburgh Castle esplanade; Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo stadium
The temporary arena erected each summer.
The Tattoo has a different theme every year. I suspect that some years the theme dictates the performers involved, and some years the theme is created after they see who is available to travel to Scotland for a month and perform. For 2014, the Tattoo's theme is The Year of Homecoming Our Home, Friends and Family. It includes multiple pipe bands from Scotland, with evocative names like the Royal Dragoon Guards, the Queen's Royal Hussars, the Black Watch, and the Royal Highland Fusiliers, among others.

Massed pipe bands; Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Massed pipe bands roughly 250 total pipers and drummers with drum majors in the lead. {Ed.'s note: Yes! More bagpipes!}
As always, the Tattoo features several groups from around the world, a mixture of military ensembles and native cultural organizations. This year's groups included:
  • the Band of the Armed Forces of Malta;
  • iNgobamakhosi Zulu Dance Troupe (South Africa);
  • the Shetland Fiddlers Hjaltibonhoga;
  • the Nagaland Folkloric Group (India);
  • Scottish highland dancers;
  • the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band;
  • Te Wake Huia and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui (Maori dancers from New Zealand); and
  • the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force Steel Orchestra.
Interspersed with these groups were more interludes of massed military bands and massed pipes and drums.

Military band
Although the show starts at 9:00 pm, it's still fairly light outside.
Zulu dancers at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The Zulu dance troupe from South Africa.
Zulu dancing at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The Zulu dancing squeezed in amongst the stiff military bands brought to mind the Monty Python phrase, "and now for something completely different."
Shetland fiddlers at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Shetland fiddlers, ranging in age from 14 to 60, and wearing traditional Shetland wool sweaters.
Shetland fiddlers trying to march
They tried to do a little marching, y'know, for the Tattoo, but it was a challenge for them.
Singapore Armed Forces Central Band
The Singapore Armed Forces Central Band was among the most impressive groups this year, musically and visually.
Singapore Silent Precision Drill Squad
The group included its Silent Precision Drill Squad . . .
Singapore Music & Drama Company
. . . and its Music & Drama Company.
Maori Dancers performing a haka; Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Maori dancers performing a haka, a war dance.
Trinidad and Tobago's Defence Force Steel Orchestra
Trinidad and Tabago's Defence Force Steel Orchestra is the world's only marching military steel band. So they have that going for them.
The 2014 Tattoo also marked the centenary of World War I, as well as the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Marines.

Royal Marines Bands at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The Royal Marines Bands.
Royal Marines
Royal Marines demonstrated a nighttime raid.
A perennial favorite of Tattoo audiences is precision drumming. There always seems to be a feature for the snares, quads, and basses to dazzle the audience.

Royal Marines drums
The bass drummers for the Royal Marines wear (faux?) tiger fur.
Royal Marines snare drum line
Snare line company front.
A particular crowd favorite is the Top Secret Drum Corps from Basel, Switzerland. Though neither a military ensemble nor a group from a Commonwealth country, the drummers have already appeared four times at the Tattoo and generated tens of millions of views on YouTube. The video below from 2012 gets pretty amazing around the three minute mark: sword fighting, stick tosses, strobe lights, and more:

Here's an SAT question for you: If the Top Secret Drum Corps has previously appeared at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012, it likely will appear again at the Tattoo in the year _____.

Lest ye think the Military Tattoo is all marches, pomp, circumstance, and ceremony, which might sound a bit heavy, it also includes numerous lighthearted touches. There are big dance numbers, fireworks, a sound and light show, and popular music. This year, the music and dance included Michael Jackson's Thriller (complete with zombie dance movies), Happy by Pharrell Williams, Glenn Miller's In the Mood, and Can't Buy Me Love by the Beatles.

Highland dancers at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Dancing to Cole Porter: "In olden days a glimpse of stocking / Was looked on as something shocking, / But now, God knows, / Anything Goes."
Fireworks at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
All evening shows have fireworks, but the Saturday night shows have an extensive fireworks display.
Highland, Zulu, Maori, and Caribbean dancers
Highland, Zulu, Maori, and Caribbean dancers.
For its first five decades, the Tattoo used Edinburgh Castle mostly as a dramatic backdrop. But starting in 2005, it has been utilized as a screen to display still or moving images in a son et lumière show. The castle facade is lit up by various emblems, flags, and images in relation to the performers.

Son et lumiere at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Lions rampant and to sinister guard the gatehouse.
Edinburgh Castle facade during Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Commemorating the soldiers of World War I.
Union Jack flags on Edinburgh Castle during Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Union Jack flags for singing the national anthem.
The Tattoo lasts approximately 90 minutes. The last 15 to 20 minutes are with the entire ensemble, singing, dancing, and eventually marching away. The pipers and drummers march right out of the arena and down the Royal Mile. Gotta figure that wakes up the kiddos at 10:30 pm.

Singing "God Save the Queen" at Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The full stadium sings God Save the Queen.
We had a great time. It's a fast 90 minutes. Since it goes late, we left our toddler at home in Glasgow with a babysitter, though he would've enjoyed the show quite a bit. Maybe next year for him.

Our only slight difficulty was getting out of the stands after the show finished. It took a long time. A long time. More than 20 minutes just to walk down the stairs to the floor, and we were sitting on the aisle. The arena seats around 9,000 people. I've been in stadiums that seat 50,000, 70,000, even more than 100,000 people, and nothing has ever come close to how long it took for us to exit. Even Kate, my calm, relaxed, go-with-the-flow wife, was muttering before we descended. If there's an emergency, say your prayers, 'cause you ain't getting outta there.

You may wonder, what happens if it rains? Don't worry. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has never been cancelled because of inclement weather. They emphasize the never. {Ed.'s note: How is that possible? Doesn't it rain a lot in Scotland?} Come prepared with layers and ponchos.

Also, if you don't get your tickets months in advance, is there any way to see the show? Yes, but it depends on luck. People who've bought tickets but cannot attend sometimes turn in their tickets for resale by the Tattoo. So it's possible to check daily with the Tattoo for available last-minute tickets.

I have no doubt we'll attend the Tattoo in future years. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is one of those quintessential events on Scotland's cultural calendar that combines hallowed traditions with modern flair.

Whaddya think? Have I piqued your interest for next year's show?

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo; military band
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.


  1. Awesome summary of Tattoo. Loved the videos. Your photography was excellent. I want to come next year.

  2. Damn...the hostel is already booked?!
    I do hope, Brian, that, when next we see you in your kilt, you will also be sporting a fine piper's plaid, though perhaps that will have to await your prowess on the bagpipe. Maybe you could advance straight to the position of drum major?

  3. P.S. We will be there next year (2015), looking for the Top Secret Drum Corps!

  4. Hi there,

    great photos! I'm a member of the Tasmania Police Pipe Band (your photos titled "lots of bagpipes" and "...lots and lots of bagpipes" feature us - the first is our Pipe Major and Pipe Sergeant) and I was wondering if you'd be kind enough to let us feature them on our Facebook page? Happy to link to your blog for credit of course. It's hard to get good photos when you're playing...

    Kind regards,

    1. Absolutely, happy to let you use them! And thanks for a link back to the blog. Your band should be really proud of being part of such a great event like the Tattoo!

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