Edinburgh International Festival: The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

After much deliberation in Grassmarket, we agreed to eat at The Black Bull where I had my first taste of the nationally distributed IPA, Deuchar’s.  It was much subtler than the micro-brewed IPAs I am used to (and prefer) and, being a pub ale, it was served flat and mostly warm. Deuchar’s certainly fit the bill while there, but by and large I prefer the small batch IPA that the Northwestern United States crafts so artfully. And they chill it, which is nice.

As I have said, we have trouble making decisions. The constant bombardment of flyers and postcards for shows was in no way helpful. Helpfully, the decision of what to see and do for the evening was decidedly made for us. Twice.

You see, we were wandering about, trying to figure out what all of the hullabaloo was on this particular street. Young people in official-looking reflective yellow jackets were ushering people out of the road. They were infinitely more polite than security at any festival I’ve been to in the States, and still doing their jobs. I pulled one of the ushers aside and asked what was going on. He answered, “It’s fer the military tattoo.”

“Oh.” I replied.

The military tattoo. Of course. They’re clearing the streets for some guy to get the name and motto of his division tattooed on his arm? Right.

We walked on, confused, taking it all in. Kim and I had already decided that we should see a comedy show. It just sounded right. There was a Fringe Venue on the street where the guy was getting his tattoo, so we poked our heads in the entryway and checked out the evening’s bookings. Just as we were doing so, a young woman popped out and asked us if we’d like tickets to the comedy show starting in twenty minutes. Shrugging our shoulders, we looked at each other and said, “Sure!”

As it turns out, the show was free because they couldn’t sell tickets to it. I mean, the tickets had a price on them, but it would appear that few people were willing to pay 12 to see two British women in a raunchy parody of The Hangover. It was entertaining enough, but we walked out of there commenting that we were glad we didn’t pay for our tickets.

Upon exiting the theater we were greeted by throngs of people milling about in the street toward a huge parking lot with stadium bleachers erected in it. Over-stimulated, exhausted, and generally disoriented, a kindly silver-haired Swedish man came up to us and asked us if we would like tickets for the Tattoo.

“Maybe, I mean, what’s the Tattoo?”

“It’s a performance by the Drum Corp of the Royal Military, with guest performances from other nations’ armies. It’s sells out every night. It’s the most popular event at the festival.”

“How did you get extra tickets?”

“I’m a tour guide from Sweden.”

“Oh, well, sure we’ll go! All I’ve got on me is 52₤. Will you take that?”

“Yes, that’s fine! Now come on! The show starts in ten minutes! We’ve got to hurry!”

I handed him the money and he handed me the tickets. I shook his hand and said, “I’m Eric.”

“I’m Jorg, I believe that is George in English. And don’t worry,” he said with a grin as he pushed onward, “These are real tickets. You are sitting right next to me!”

Admittedly, I was skeptical of this too-kind, take-whatever-he-can-get-for-the-tickets Swedish “tour guide.” Once however we were seated, Jorg introduced himself properly and explained to us that a couple on his tour decided at the last minute they were too tired to attend the show (Suckers.) As such, we were able to save 22₤, get killer seats to the sold-out Tattoo, and walk in ten minutes before the show started without waiting in line. Hell yeah.

The Tattoo defies description. It is music, marching, noise, lights, dancing, rhythm, bagpipes, horns, show tunes, all executed with military precision. This year’s performance saw corps from the British Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, The United States Army, Norwegian Armed Forces, and The Top Secret Drum Corps. I may have even missed one or two in there.

The show is held on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. An entire stadium is annually erected during the month before the Festival. As if that isn’t impressive enough an ever-changing LCD light show is splashed across the castle’s façade during the show! Superman’s logo, the Union Jack, Dennis the Menace, character’s from Disney’s Brave and the Scottish Flag were but some of the images projected onto the castle.

The name of the Tattoo comes from the Dutch “doe den tap toe (pronounced too)” meaning, “close the tap,” or as we might say in the States, “Last Call!” In the 1740s the British Army was in Flanders fighting in the War of Austrian Succession. The barkeeps would yell “tap toe” and the bugler would play aloud for the army camp to know it was last call. The name stuck.

There were fireworks, rifle reports, vocal soloists, emcees, kilts, gymnastics, BMX tricks, and ballet! Kim and I gratefully sat there freezing in the intermittent rain showers (Not having planned to be out very late, we were sorely underdressed). The show brought me to tears a couple of times, and left us utterly speechless. All we could do once the show ended was to thank Jorg profusely for selling us his unused tickets.

And so, without any reservations, I recommend to any and all that you buy tickets for the Royal Military Tattoo if you are going to the Festival. Don’t be naive like we were, buy them in advance, bring a cushion to sit on, whisky to sip on, a good camera, and a warm jacket.

Finally, I recommend that you don’t seek out a video of The Tattoo on YouTube or the like. Video just doesn’t do the show justice. The three crappy photos below that I took with my phone barely offer a sense of how incredible this show is. Just go see it.

You won’t be disappointed.

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