Edinburgh Castle, Spectacular Site of the Military Tattoo

Magic Carpet Journals takes you to the impressive Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle.

Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Delta Police Pipe Band
Delta Police Pipe Band

The imposing Edinburgh Castle is the site of Edinburgh’s annual Military Tattoo. A more appropriate and spectacular setting could not be imagined! The historic castle looks down on the city from atop an extinct volcano. Once a mighty fortress, Edinburgh Castle can be considered a military fortification even today, as it houses the military regiment that guards the Scottish Crown Jewels. It is also home to the Army School of Piping.

Pipers on Edinburgh's Royal Mile
Pipers on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

A daytime visit to the Castle provides an insight into the history of the imposing structure. The top of the historic street known as the Royal Mile leads directly onto the parade square, or esplanade, in front of the castle, where the Tattoo has been held every summer since 1950. Military guards stand watch at the entrance as a steady flow of tourists pass in through the stone gatehouse. Walking over the ancient cobblestones, the visitors follow a route through the old guardhouse and inner barrier, then under the spiked portcullis gate. This menacing-looking gate could be dropped onto an invader. In all seven well-fortified gates guard the entrance. Guides will tell you that the castle was never breached by the enemy. (The enemy, it is clearly understood, was the English.)

Cobblestones lead to Edinburgh Castle's stone gate house
Cobblestones lead to Edinburgh Castle’s stone gate house

The steep, cobblestone road proceeds past ancient stone buildings, which have served the needs of the regiments, housed here, for centuries. Nowhere on the British Isle does one feel a more strong sense of history than when walking through their ancient castles. This castle is especially steeped in the lore and legends of Scotland. The original buildings were believed to have been built on the site as early as the sixth century. Edinburgh Castle has been the abode of Scottish Royalty since Mary, Queen of Scots first took up residence there in 1565, when she returned to Scotland as a seventeen year old widow, following the death of her husband, King Francis II of France. Her son, James the VI of Scotland, who eventually became James I of England, was born in Edinburgh Castle.

Saint Margaret’s Chapel

High atop the castle grounds a small stone building, St. Margaret’s Chapel, is situated. It is the oldest building on the site, and probably dates from the reign of Margaret’s son David I, who came to the throne in 1124. Here, weddings and christenings still take place for the members of Her Majesty’s Military and their families. I was told this chapel is a very popular place for Scottish weddings, as the church only holds about a dozen people. The canny father of the bride can save money, a fact that appeals to a thrifty Scots.

view of Edinburgh from the Castle's parapet
View of Edinburgh from parapet of Edinburgh Castle

The view from the parapet is spectacular. One can stand by the castle wall, looking out over the city and beyond onto the body of water known as the Firth of Forth. Cannons, which once were used to defend the castle, still point out over the city. They fondly refer to one particular cannon as “Mons Meg.” At one o’clock every afternoon the cannon’s roar can still be heard over the city.

Another view of Edinburgh from the Castle's parapet
Another view of Edinburgh from the Castle’s parapet
Cannons including Mons Meg
Cannons including Mons Meg

The Scottish Crown Jewels are housed in Crown Square, a building that probably dates from the 16th Century. It is an interesting exhibit, which presents some of the history of Scotland along with the jewels. The crown, sword and sceptre, used in the coronation of both Mary, Queen of Scots and her son James VI, are on permanent display here.

The Parade Square or Esplanade during the afternoon before the Tattoo begins.

Returning to the castle esplanade in the evening, the scene is transformed. For the three weeks of the Tattoo, bleachers are erected around the former parade square. The Tattoo commences at nine o’clock, as twilight gradually turns to the black of night. Torches and spotlights light the castle walls with a golden glow, forming a spectacular backdrop for the show. The Castle gates open and through them the tartan-clad Pipers lead the Massed Military Bands as they march onto the esplanade. While I sat entranced the pipes and drums combined in a uplifting rendition of Gordon Highlanders Regimental March, The Cock of the North, as they marched proudly onto the parade square. Each year they walk in the footsteps of generations of their predecessors. What a spectacular sight! What an exhilarating sound! No wonder those piper’s predecessors have inspired brave Scottish soldiers as they led them into battle over the centuries.

Edinborough Tattoo Marching

The theme varies each year. Different countries were invited to participate in the event. Besides the Millennium, the year 2000 saw the Tattoo mark its fiftieth anniversary. That celebration was particularly noteworthy. The 1995 Tattoo honoured the seven-century old alliance of the French and the Scottish. The French were represented by the band of the 42nd Signals Regiment, the music band of the French forces in Germany. The audience watched as the nimble fingered French Warrant Officer twirled his baton to the rollicking French tune, The Cancan.

Edinborough Tattoo Marching

It is a real honour for Pipers from outside of Scotland to be invited to perform at the annual event. Over the years several Canadian bands have taken part in the Tattoo. British Columbia’s own 40 member Delta Police Pipe Band, under the leadership of Drum Major Burns, were amongst the proud pipers invited to participate. The climax of the evening comes when the Lone Piper plays from high atop the castle wall. During the three weeks of their Tattoo performances, the strains of Donald Blue, a Gordon Highlander’s Evening Retreat Tune, resounded over a hushed audience. It was played by the Lone Piper, one of two members of the Delta Police Pipe Band, Donald McGuiness and Dave Rutherford, who alternately had the honour of performing this solo from the castle ramparts each evening.

During my visit, the evening ended with a spectacular display. As the Massed Bands and the Massed Pipes and Drums played, fireworks projected a breathtaking array of lights onto the sky. Haunting lights and shadows danced over the medieval stone castle. Music filled the air as the participants proudly marched off the esplanade to the tune of Scotland the Brave. It was a rousing finale to a memorable evening. The pomp and pageantry of the night’s performance will long be remembered by anyone fortunate enough to have been there! I will always remember the thrill attending the Edinburgh Tattoo that evening.

Story and pictures by M. Maxine George.

Delta Police Band picture courtesy of the Delta Police Band.

Picture of Band on Royal Mile courtesy of The British Tourist Association

Last Updated February 17, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster

For those wishing to attend this popular event, which takes place annually for three weeks in August, information can be obtained from:

The British Tourist Authority
5915 Airport Road, Ste. 120 Mississauga, Ontario L4V 1T1

The Edinburgh Tourist Board
4 Rothesay Terrace, Edinburgh, Scotland

Tickets may be obtained from:

The Tattoo Office,
32 Market Street, Edinburgh, Scotland EH1 1QB
Telephone: 0131-225-1188