The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade

Back in the days of yore, a military tattoo was the drumbeat that signaled “lights out” to British soldiers reveling in local taverns. The nightly ritual has evolved into a modern-day spectacle of music and majesty, none more renowned than the Royal Military Tattoo. The invitational event since 1950 has unfolded for three summer weeks against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle in ┬áScotland’s Capital City. This year’s Tattoo runs from August 3-25.

The two-hour program showcases the talents of bands, drill teams, cyclists, equestrians, gunners, flag-twirlers and others from the British Commonwealth of Nations and worldwide. Bagpipers and percussionists are the mainstays, although in any given year they could be joined by the likes of Caribbean steel bands or Cossack dancers. The United States has been represented about 20 times. The collective cast of about 1,000 comes to entertain, but nearly all the performers are soldiers first–and combat-ready.

A ticket to the Tattoo was part of our 10-day package tour of Great Britain by Globus and the sole reason we chose that particular itinerary. On the night of our scheduled performance, we trudged up the narrow, cobbled incline of the Royal Mile en route to the Castle. The Esplanade, which is a stretch of asphalt leading to the drawbridge and the thousand-year history behind it, was flanked by spectator stands along three sides to create an outdoor stage roughly the size of a football field. Despite the slight drizzle, regiments of fiery torches wrapped the ancient fortress in a golden glow. No Tattoo performance has ever been cancelled, and this one wasn’t, either. We took our seats, our very tiny seats, and waited for darkness.

The first full act assembles the massed bagpipes (“pipes” for short) and drums from each participating country. After all, these are the players who started ┬áthe tattoo tradition, back in the 17th and 18th centuries when British soldiers were fighting in the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. “Doe den tap toe,” in the vernacular of the time, meant “turn off the taps.” Early drummers were joined by pipers, and then flautists, and things just took off from there. To date, more than 45 countries have taken part in the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Next up are the headliners, who give new meaning to the concept of “military theater.” They mix up pomp and circumstance with pop and circus acts, and with a playlist that includes anthems, marches, jazz, lullabies and Broadway hits. We saw the Representative Band of the Border Guard of the Republic of Poland play trombity beskidzkie, instruments that are similar to alpine horns. The Imps Motorcycle Display Team, a children’s daredevil exhibition group from London, zig-zagged up and down the arena at thrilling speeds, individually and in pyramids. There were bagpipers from South Africa, Jordan and Switzerland. Highland dancers kicked and twirled to folk songs while British Army gymnasts flipped and somersaulted to can-can music. The New Zealand Army played Swan Lake, the “Get Smart” theme song and the Haka war chant. The Citadel Regimental Band and Pipes blasted When the Saints Go Marching In. Of course, they did.

After the individual countries take their turns, the massed performers return to the Esplanade. They parade and counter-parade in unison, filling every inch and corner of pavement. Only the multi-hued fantasia of uniforms, tartans, headgear and regalia revealed the diversity behind their alignment.

“This is a class act,” said Noel Fields, a former career Air Force officer from Sierra Vista, Ariz. “I thoroughly enjoyed this, especially the Poles with their monster trumpets.”

The Tattoo is the most popular event on the Scottish cultural calendar, drawing more than 200,000 spectators annually from Great Britain and beyond. Tour guide Paul Barton, who works for Globus, has escorted many of them over the past 20 years.

“The reaction from people on seeing the Tattoo is always one of how moving and spectacular it is, not least the setting,” he said. “Many people book their tours with the performance in mind, but for those who are traveling unaware, it is a huge surprise. The massed pipes and drums make one’s spine tingle!”

Regardless of who the performers are or from where they hail, each night ends the same–with a somber, emotional tribute to active and fallen soldiers everywhere. The musicians play “Auld Lang Syne,” and the audience sings along, hand in hand, swaying in time. Fireworks explode above the Castle. The sky grows dark once more, and a lone piper, high up on the battery wall, plays the haunting lament, “Sleep Dearie Sleep.”

It’s time to turn out the lights. It’s time for peace.

Massed Pipes and Drums at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tatttoo