Imagine one thousand performers crammed elbow to elbow in a stadium or, in this case, the Castle Esplanade. Columns and columns of bagpipers, drummers, band members and dancers squeeze together for the grand finale. The audience roars and claps their approval, then a hush falls over the crowd. Those seated reach out and grab hands with one another. Music resumes and they start to sway and sing Auld Lang Syne. I remember that moment vividly, as it sent goose-bump chills through my body, raised unexpected emotion and a sense of national pride.
Two thousand and ten marks the Diamond Jubilee Year of Edinburgh’s celebrated Royal Military Tattoo which will take place from August 6-28th, against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. This royal residence, atop a volcanic rock, has been around since at least 12th century. In 1566 Mary Queen of Scots gave birth in the castle to her only child, the future King James VI of Scotland and I of England.
I was fortunate to see the world’s most spectacular Tattoo in 2007 on a trip to Scotland’s capital city. According to Wikipedia, ” The word “Tattoo” is derived from “tap toe” (“toe” is pronounced “too”), the Dutch for “Last orders”. Translated literally, it means: “put the tap to”, or “turn off the tap”. ”
The British adopted the practice, played by a regiment’s Corps of Drums to tavern owners, to turn off the taps so that the soldiers would retire. Later in the 18th century, the term Tattoo was used to describe not only the last duty call, but also a ceremonial form of evening entertainment performed by military musicians. So, today’s tattoo is a performance of military bands and extras. In Scotland it calls for bagpipes and drums.
This year an expected 217,000 people will see the Tattoo live on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, and it has sold out in advance for the last decade. Thirty percent of the audience are from Scotland and 35% from the rest of the United Kingdom. The remaining 35% of the audience consists of 70,000 visitors from overseas. The Tattoo is televised in 30 countries and an additional 100 million people see the event on television worldwide.
I remember strolling alongside a tangled traffic jam toward the floodlit castle, perched on a massive crag. Near the top, I passed through century’s old oak gates and took a grandstand seat. I could feel the excited anticipation of the other ticket holders. Soon, the swelling sound of hundreds of pipes and drums cracked through the air and a kaleidoscope of colors began to appear.
Military bands marched in formation, immense flags were unfurled and graceful dancers whirled. The highlight, for me, was the Lone Piper on the Castle ramparts. Lit by a single spotlight and the flickering flames of the Castle torch lights, he played a haunting lament that brought tears to my eyes. Why is the sound of a bagpipe so soulful?
As his melody faded away, fireworks burst over the Castle hanging in the dark sky. But the solemn mood continued as the crowd now joined together in song. I remember glancing toward my Scottish neighbor’s face and feeling a sense of unity. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo has become a recognizable symbol of the city, one that imparts a shared love of Scotland, her music and traditions.
Attending a live performance has been checked off my bucket list, but I encourage you to add it to yours.
If you go, make your lodging choice from the hotels in Edinburgh city centre and plan to walk everywhere. The crowd in the city resonates with infectious cheer.