Edinburgh Tattoo: Everything you need to know

A 21-gun salute of facts about Edinburgh's military show of strength


This article is from 2010.

Edinburgh Tattoo

Here comes everything you need to know about that noisy thing with all the crowds up at the castle. Laura Ennor offers up 21 handy bitesize chunks of facts about the Tattoo

  1. All together now: Haaaappy Birthday to … well, a fair few things actually. There’s the 150th anniversary of the UK Cadet Organisation, which shares its birthday with the Army Physical Training Corps; then there’s the centenary of the Army School of Bagpipe Music; the Imps Motorcycle Display team are turning 40; and then there’s the biggie: 2010 is the Tattoo’s Diamond Jubilee year, marking 60 years of rousing pipes, rattling drums and rigorous military timing.
  2. Never in its 60-year history has a single performance of the Tattoo been cancelled. Many similar displays around the world take place in indoor arenas, so the fact that Edinburgh’s happens on top of a rocky outcrop exposed to the delights of the Scottish summer makes that even more impressive, no?
  3. It’s estimated that around 100m people worldwide watch the BBC’s Tattoo highlights package each year. However, the appearance of Chinese acts in recent years and the sale of the programme to Central Chinese Television is reckoned to have added another 300m to that impressive figure.
  4. Thought it was about military pride and excellence? Well, you’re wrong. Basically, the Tattoo is all about beer. The origin of the word ‘tattoo’ is in the Old Dutch phrase ‘doe den tap toe’ (‘turn the tap off’). This is the call that would go up around the inns of the garrison towns where the British Army was stationed in the 17th century, as the carousing soldiers were summoned back to barracks for the night by a contingent of marching drummers. So tattoo – like booze, coleslaw, poppycock, tickle and iceberg – is a Dutch loanword.
  5. Each year a significant portion of the money raised from ticket sales is donated to charities, including servicemen’s charities such as the Army Benevolent Fund and arts organisations such as the Edinburgh International Festival.
  6. All of the pipers and drummers representing British regiments in the spectacular columns of massed pipes and drums are serving soldiers first and foremost, musicians second. And for hobbyists, they sure ain’t too shabby.
  7. This year’s massed pipes and drums will include old favourites from Scotland and the rest of the UK, as well as the South Australia Pipes and Drums, the South African Irish Regiment, South Carolina’s civilian Citadel Band and the Swiss Highlanders (who wear their own specially designed tartan).
  8. Stalwarts of the massed pipes and drums, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, have not one but a rather greedy three mottoes, ranging from the menacing ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’ (roughly, Latin for ‘no one hurts me and gets away with it’) to the cocky ‘Second to None’, and on to the more humble German of ‘ich dien’ (‘I serve’).
  9. The BBC broadcast of the Tattoo gets its first new narrator for 45 years this year, following the death of Tom Fleming.
  10. The youngest performers in this year’s Tattoo are part of the London Imps Motorcycle Display Team: they start them young at five, with retirement at the grand old age of 16.
  11. Although it has only 21 year-round employees, the running of the Tattoo requires a ground crew almost as numerous as the 1000-strong performers, including stewards, ushers, police, first-aiders, firefighters and logistics experts. Rather conveniently, the army isn’t bad at that sort of thing.
  12. If all that parading around has got you in the mood for a little shopping – what else? – you’ll be thrilled to know that Tattoo-branded items in the dedicated souvenir shop range from the eminently sensible rain poncho, to the hoarder’s delight of a thimble and the frankly superfluous drum-shaped ice bucket.
  13. The ‘Voice of the Tattoo’ is one Alasdair Hutton, local councillor for Kelso and District in the Borders.
  14. Infrastructure geeks will be excited to know that the current arena seating stands are being retired this year. This after 35 years of holding up an audience of 217,000 Tattoo-goers each August, not to mention fans of the likes of Girls Aloud, Runrig, Duran Duran, The Proclaimers and more during the outdoor gig ‘season’ either side of the festival period.
  15. Twenty coaches are needed each night to transport the performers from Redford Barracks. Around the same number arrive full of tour groups, with whole city-centre streets being turned into car parks to accommodate all of them.
  16. In honour of this year’s Diamond Jubilee, the Queen has bestowed the title of ‘Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo’ on the event for the very first time.
  17. Among the events inspired by Edinburgh’s Tattoo is the Basel Tattoo in Switzerland, which takes place in late July just before the Edinburgh extravaganza. It features many of the same acts, and is currently running a special offer of knock-down ‘Schottische Preisen’ in its online shop.
  18. There’s no such frugality from our visitors though, with Tattoo audiences estimated to contribute around £88m to the Scottish economy.
  19. For the last 11 years, the Tattoo has been a complete sell-out.
  20. It’s tradition for the ‘Voice of the Tattoo’ to raise a cheer for each of the nationalities represented in the audience at the start of every night’s performance. The biggest is always for our English cousins, who buy around 50% of the tickets. Another 20% go to patriotic Scots, while the remainder are divided between Europe (12%, mainly Germans), North America (8%), and other far-flung parts of the world (including a growing market in China).
  21. The Tattoo’s showpiece international acts for this year are still a closely-guarded secret, but are bound to be suitably spectacular if past visitors are anything to go by. Previously, we’ve had Chinese stilt-walkers, Estonian gymnasts and a Tongan brass band whose stage act included ‘paddling’ a canoe around the Esplanade. Word on the Royal Mile is that there’s an Eastern European group and a ‘sizeable contingent’ from the Middle East, plus some four-legged participants. We’re intrigued.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle, 0131 225 1188, 6–28 Aug, Mon–Fri, 9pm; Sat, 7.30pm, 10.30pm, £16–£50.

This article is from 2010.


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