Edinburgh Tattoo Spectacular

Nicola Iseard ( 20 December 2016 )

Dramatic and spectacular, the Edinburgh Tattoo is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, says Nicola Iseard, who discovers a military and musical extravaganza held in the imposing shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

One thing is for sure, the Scots certainly know how to put on a show.

The annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo - taking place from August 4-26 in 2017 - is hands down one of the most fantastic shows in the world.

Held on the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle at twilight, the show is part of the Edinburgh Festival, a collective name for the independent festivals and events taking place in the city throughout August. 

As colourful as the month-long festival is, it is the Tattoo that steals the show: a remarkable spectacle of pipes and pageantry that attracts some 200,000 visitors every year.

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The history of the Edinburgh Tattoo

The word 'tattoo' originally dates from the eighteenth century, when British Army units were stationed in Flanders during the War of the Austrian Succession. 

Each evening, drummers from the garrison were sent out into the towns to summon the soldiers to return to the barracks for the night. 

The process, known as 'doe den tap toe' (pronounced 'doo den tap too') encouraged the inn keepers to 'turn off the taps' (stop serving beer) and send the soldiers back for the night.

From its early alehouse beginnings, a 'tattoo' became a ceremonial performance of military music by massed bands; the first official Edinburgh Tattoo was held in 1950 with just eight items in the programme.

Once is not enough...

This year's 90-minute show is somewhat more elaborate, with over 1,000 performers from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom, each with their boots and buttons polished, and their backs as straight as ramrods.

No matter how many times you've read about the Tattoo, nothing can prepare you for the drama of the opening scene, as the heavy oak gates of the castle sweep open, and the massed bands march out in their hundreds across the drawbridge and out on the Esplanade.

The show then unfolds into a dazzling 90-minute spectacle of dance and music, where you can expect everything from Highland dancers to steel bands from Trinidad and Tobago. 

The highlight is the massed pipes and drums, provided by regiments of the British Army and regiments from around the world with Scottish connections.

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A spectacular finale

Then comes the finale; all 1,000 or so performers spill out onto the Esplanade, column after column of marchers, dancers, and bandsmen. 

Pipes, drums and bands play along with a choir and sometimes a solo singer to create moving, patriotic music.

Once the music ends, a hush falls for the singing of the Evening Hymn: a haunting lament played by the floodlit Lone Piper from high on the Castle ramparts, the sound of which echoes through the turrets and towers.

Suddenly, fireworks set the sky alight with reds, oranges and purples; the Tattoo has comes to its end.

One thing is for sure though, the Military Tattoo is sure to leave a lasting impression on you long after the fireworks fade.

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