60 Years of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo

This article is from 2009.


In a year of Scottish landmarks, the Tattoo seems more relevant than ever before. Yasmin Sulaiman chats to performers and producers of this sweeping spectacle

Of all Edinburgh’s August happenings, the Military Tattoo is perhaps the most iconic. With its fairytale setting – the majestic esplanade of Edinburgh Castle – and the impeccable Massed Pipes and Drums, as well as a dazzling array of international participants, it squeezes the central themes of the capital’s Festival season into one impressive spectacle: raw Scottish pride fused with enriching global contributions. And with a live audience of over 200,000 every year and 100 million people estimated to watch the event on television, there’s no denying that this is a slick operation.

It may then be surprising to find out that there are only about 20 people working year-round from the Tattoo’s Market Street offices in Edinburgh to bring the extravaganza together. At the helm of this organisation is Major General Euan Loudon, who has been chief executive and producer of the Tattoo since 2007 but has roots that have been entwined with the cultural event for much longer. ‘I seem to have been enchanted and entangled with this wonderful institution all my life,’ he says. ‘My first memories of it are going with my grandparents as a wee boy in the late 1950s and being thrilled with the James Bond car doing J-turns on the esplanade or dog display teams from the Royal Air Force. There aren’t things like dog display teams anymore or naval rigging display teams, as they don’t exist; those gaps were filled by even more colourful and diverse international acts.’

2009 marks the Edinburgh Military Tattoo’s 60th session, which fortuitously coincides with Scotland’s year of Homecoming, a tourism initiative designed to mark the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birthday, which the government hopes will attract the Scottish diaspora back to explore its roots. Several acts have been incorporated into the Tattoo’s usual programme in celebration of these unique festivities, including performances from student soloists at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and an original dance interpretation of Burns’ 'Tam O’Shanter', widely considered to be one of his finest poems. Taste of the Tattoo events will also be held at Linlithgow Palace, Dumfries House, Jedburgh and Glasgow later this year, the first time the event has left the EH1 postcode in Scotland.

With so much to plan for, the amount of preparation that goes into organising the spectacle is impressive. According to Major General Loudon, the schedules for 2010 and 2011 are already almost full and he is even thinking as far ahead as 2015. Luckily, there’s no shortage of interest from performers eager to cement their place in Tattoo history. ‘I don’t think there is a week that passes when I do not receive a handful of DVDs or letters from people around the world asking how they can participate. But what you’ve got to do is sort out the probables from the possibles. It involves a mixture of quality, scale as a spectacle and making sure that when they perform, what they’re trying to do is leave an impression on people that has either tugged their heart-strings or made them stamp their feet. And if they can do both of those things in the one act, that’s a perfect solution.’

One of these performers is Colour Sergeant Barry Young, a member of the Royal Regiment of Scotland who first performed at the Tattoo in 1993 and has done so 11 times since. This year, he has co-written the musical arrangements for the Tam O’Shanter dance pieces, which will be performed by the Australian Highland Dance Troupe and the Tattoo’s Highland Spring Dancers, and his pride at being involved is instantly clear. ‘In the past couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to get wheeled onto the esplanade to play the piano for the dancers; it’s such a privilege to do that. Writing the music for Tam O’Shanter was a slow process but it’s very rewarding when you see the final product.’

While this year’s Homecoming theme will play a prominent role in the Tattoo’s programme, the international show-stoppers for which the event has become famous will still be out in force. It’s this global aspect that’s been the Tattoo’s biggest change since its early days, with Scotland exploring its historic links with Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada, as well as wartime allies such as Norway and newer post-Soviet nations.

For Major General Loudon, there will be many moments to treasure from international acts in 2009, including a debut from the Central Band of the Swiss Army, Tongan musicians and the presence of the King of Tonga, who will take the salute. ‘But the thing I am most excited about is that 100 people from Edinburgh’s twin city of Xi’an in China’s Shaanxi province are going to perform a cultural piece called She Huo. It’s a lunar carnival event and it’s never been seen in Scotland before.’

On the home front, he thinks that the Tam O’Shanter piece is ‘an interesting rollercoaster ride’ and reveals that the Massed Bands of the Royal Air Force – about 120 musicians in all – will be joined by eight electric violinists. But through all the discussion of this year’s acts, it’s Major General Loudon’s love for the Tattoo and its cultural legacy that shines through most brightly. ‘I honestly believe you would be hard-pressed to find another Festival event anywhere in the world that’s been going for 60 years that blends this amazing mixture of magical setting, music and spectacle in such a dramatic and much-loved way.’

Colour Sergeant Young agrees. ‘My first Tattoo was an amazing experience. Now that I’ve done quite a few of them, I sort of take it for granted but I know that when I leave the army, I’ll think about what a fantastic show it is.’

Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle, 0131 225 1188, 7–29 Aug.

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo

A unique blend of music, ceremony, entertainment and theatre featuring bands from across the globe, set against the magnificent backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. Booking essential.

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