The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Scotland's legendary Black Watch Regimental Pipe Band enters the arena from Edinburgh Castle.

Scotland’s legendary Black Watch Regimental Pipe Band enters the arena from Edinburgh Castle.

The original meaning of ‘military tattoo’ was a military drum performance. The term dates back to the 16th century in Holland. The Dutch Army was staffed mostly by mercenaries from England, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland with a Dutch commanding officer. Drummers were sent out each evening at 9:30 p.m. to inform soldiers it was time to return to their barracks. The process was known as a ‘Tap Toe’, a signal to innkeepers to shut off their taps and stop serving beer to the soldiers.

The boys' precision motorcycle team from England warmed up the crowd.

The boys’ precision motorcycle team from England warmed up the crowd.

Nowadays, a tattoo is a performance by military bands for entertainment, and one of the  world’s most prestigious tattoos is held outside the entrance to Edinburgh Castle every August as part of the festival known simply as Fringe, which we attended. The show featured groups from Korea, Mongolia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Australia, England and of course, Scotland.

The massed band opened the tattoo with stirring pipe and drum numbers.

The massed band opened the tattoo with stirring pipe and drum numbers.

The show opened with the massed pipe bands marching out from the castle onto the escalade while playing the bagpipes in unison. The collective musical force of fifty drummers and a hundred pipers is thrilling. It got the crowd fired up more than a Super Bowl halftime show! Following the pipers were the drum and bugle corps massed bands. There is nothing like marching bands in their dress uniforms to get the spectators energized.

From Mariachi to fiesta dancing, the Mexico band livened up the show.

From Mariachi to fiesta dancing, the Mexico band livened up the show.

The Mexican group opened with an Aztec-style fire dance followed by a musical fiesta featuring dancers in traditional bright colored dresses. The Mongolian band had the most impressive uniforms and their dancers performed a tribute to the great Genghis Khan, complete with period costumes and replica spears and arrows.

The performers from South Korea contrasted with the power of the brass and pipe bands with a delicate dance with silk scarves and ballet-like choreography. Their presentation built to a crescendo of synchronized drumming that brought roars of appreciation from the capacity crowd of 8,600.

The Kiwis go Gangnam Style.

The Kiwis go Gangnam Style.

The New Zealanders stole the show with their energy. They started their presentation with the classic Maori haka or war chant. After a classic march they performed a drinking song where they staggered while playing, which drew laughs and cheers from the audience. They followed with the final movement of the classic Sousa march, Stars and Stripes Forever with six piccolo soloists. However, they completely won the hearts of the crowd when the trombone players set down their horns and danced Gangnam Style complete with sunglasses.

The Mongolian uniforms were the most colorful.

The Mongolian uniforms were the most colorful.

As if that were not enough, the women’s drill team joined the band. Their precision movements culminated in a double file crisscross performed marching backwards. I have seen some amazing dance and drill routines, but I had never seen that before! It was one thing keeping their lines perfect, but they did so while blind to the movements of their teammates while marching in reverse. No wonder the Kiwis won over the crowd so completely on this night.

The Tattoo Grand Finale complete with fireworks

The Tattoo Grand Finale complete with fireworks launched from Edinburgh Castle.

As exciting as the tattoo was, my words are inadequate to describe how stirring the performances were to see in person. If you ever learn of a military tattoo in your area, I urge you to experience it firsthand. You will not be disappointed.

25 comments on “The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

  1. Loved the story, and really enjoyed the pictures.

  2. nantubre says:

    Truly amazing the way the art of mankind brings us together in peace and joy. How exciting it must have been to have been there first hand! Wow.

    • Mike Lince says:

      Indeed, when it comes to pageantry, the military folks get it right. It is amazing to see their training in a peacetime endeavor. Thank you for that observation! – Mike

  3. Wow – what a spectacular show! I can only imagine how long it took to prepare a show like that. The history behind it is also interesting. And here I thought I was going to read about how you got drunk and came home with a charming military-style tattoo. I guess I’ll read about your tattoo at the same time that I see a photo of you in a kilt – ha! Celeste 🙂

    • Mike Lince says:

      ha ha – Celeste, you crack me up!
      I kept trying to come up with adjectives that would do justice to the military tattoo, and ‘spectacular’ was the best I could do, too. – Mike

  4. Pit says:

    Thanks for sharing that great experience.
    The Edinburgh Festival/Military Tattoo as well as the Highland Gathering in Braemar are high on our bucket list of holiday destinations. Maybe we’l be lucky and make it there next year even.
    Best regards from southern Texas,

    • Mike Lince says:

      Even if you do not make it to the UK, there are many Highland Games throughout the U.S. and Canada. There are at least as many Scots in North America as there are in Scotland. There are also several military tattoos. The U.S. Air Force tattoo the weekend before Independence Day at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio is one of the largest scale tattoos in the world, and it is free of charge – in case you don’t make it to Edinburgh, that is. 🙂 – Mike

  5. I’m sending all of these posts to my boy, Little Man. Who woulda known a tattoo had anything to do with music!?

    • Mike Lince says:

      Right – in today’s world ‘tattoo’ involves ink. I felt it was necessary to use the first paragraphs to define a ‘military tattoo’ as an event, not a badge obtained while out drinking with companions. Thank you as always for sharing and supporting! 🙂

  6. reocochran says:

    I think this is a wonderful opportunity and the tattoo reminds me in a way of that clogging and stomping performances. Using percussion to create a beat and the way the performances you featured here are remarkable. How cool is a military tattoo to be seen and showing international versions are excellent!
    Mike, sorry that I went on emotions as far as Japan, I was also told by two different men, who served in the seventies and the fifties, (Operation Baby Lift in Cambodia and WWII) that had been saddened when faced with the harsh reality of the situation. Your comments made a much more well rounded post, your historical facts were very much needed! Thank you very much.

    • Mike Lince says:

      No need to apologize, Robin. All the stories need to be told, and they all have merit. My perspective is only one side of the larger story, and is no more or less important than any other. I will add some follow-up comments, hopefully to enlighten but not to diminish the experiences of others. I appreciate your sensitivity and caring thoughts. – Mike

  7. reocochran says:

    Oh, the fireworks look so amazing! I thought of a word I meant to include above, “cadence” or “pacing” can sometimes really liven military marches. But love the idea of scarves and drunken (pretend) songs, that does make the crowd laugh and lighten up, too!

    • Mike Lince says:

      Being from Ohio, you should know that one of the largest military tattoos in the world takes place the week before Independence Day at Wright-Patterson AFB, and it is free of charge. At the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, they have at least 20 performances over the course of the Summer Festival allowing 214,000 people to attend. At Wright-Patterson AFB they get 75,000 people in one day. Wow – what a party! Maybe you will be able to attend a tattoo one day, even if you do not make it to Edinburgh. 🙂

  8. Wow Mike, it’s fantastic you were there for a Tattoo! I’ve always wanted to go, but never managed to work out the timing. Your description is a joy – I would love to have seen the crowd reaction when the Kiwis put down their trombones! 🙂 ~Terri

    • Mike Lince says:

      It was great fun! Florence had never been to a tattoo before. She told a friend afterwards that she would go back every night if we were still in Edinburgh. We already had a fondness for the city from our week spent there in July. We feel that more strongly than ever after this great evening of entertainment. The Scots certainly know how to put on a show! 🙂 – Mike

  9. jhornmex says:

    Wow, great story and fantastic photos.

  10. I’m really glad you got tickets for the Tattoo, well worth the money, and you’re so right, it has to be experienced first hand. I’m not usually a big fan of bagpipes but hearing the massed bands play in the Castle was a very stirring experience. I can imagine it terrifying the life out of English invaders!

  11. alex. wemyss says:

    Friends came up from London. We went down from Aberdeen. Show was great but why didnt we see the Warhorse? A bit disappointed.

    • Mike Lince says:

      I did not realize the War Horse was not a regular part of the show. I know they were promoting the War Horse stage production coming to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre in January. I don’t think you missed that much. The War Horse was brought out for only a few minutes. I think you would love the stage show though. It is supposed to be quite amazing the way the actors brought the horse figures so realistically to life.

  12. […] had an amazing summer in the land of bagpipes, Scotch whisky, kilts and castles.  We attended the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo at the Edinburgh Festival.  Among the many churches we visited on the ABC Tour, we saw Rosslyn […]

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