The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
Playbill took a break from our coverage of Edinburgh Festival Fringe August 12 to take in a performance of another major Edinburgh highlight: the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
And no, that doesn't mean we all sat around getting bagpipes permanently inked to our forearms. Another meaning for "Tattoo" is the drum or bugle music military bands play in the evening to tell soldiers it's time for bed. In the U.K., it's also the name of a performance that showcases the precision marching and music skills of said military.
Edinburgh's Royal Military has been hosting the performances since 1949, taking advantage of the influx of tourists for the Fringe and Edinburgh International Festivals (both of which began in 1947) to offer another kind of entertainment. Every year throughout the month of August, hundreds of attendees fill the stadium of the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade for a truly special and fiercely patriotic display of Scottish excellence, from a giant ensemble of expert bagpipe players to a bevy of soldiers that march and twirl their rifles with the utmost of precision.
The annual tradition is a huge source of pride for Scots. If you talk to locals while you're in town for Fringe—and you likely will because they're incredibly friendly—as soon as they find out you're a visitor, they'll probably enthusiastically tell you to make sure and check out the Tattoo. One such interaction I had while in Edinburgh had a woman tearing up as she told me how proud of her homeland she felt every time she took in a Tattoo. Accordingly, they can also be a hot ticket, so remember to book far in advance.
And now that you understand the seriousness and austerity of the event, gather 'round.
Friend, the hottest concert in Edinburgh is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. It's got everything: fireworks, a fighter jet fly-over, A.I. robot voices, those huge horns they play in the Ricola commercials, stilt dancers, a rock band featuring fiddles and bagpipes with all of its members dressed as if they picked their wardrobe from the closet of JoJo Siwa.
Over the 74 years Edinburgh has been presenting the Tattoo, the setlist has expanded way beyond military marching to incorporate just about... well, everything. The concert is a delightful fever dream from beginning to end, a mix between a Super Bowl halftime show, the opening ceremony at the Olympics, and evening fireworks at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom—except this one happens in front of a real freaking castle. No forced perspective involved when you've got a world-famous relic built in 1103 as your backdrop.
The 90-minute performance truly features something for everybody, and that very much includes theatre-loving Playbill readers. At one point, a giant ensemble of step-dancing girls in blue dresses twirled and all of their costumes turned pink as if by magic—paging William Ivey Long!
This year's diverse songlist includes everything from traditional Scottish tunes like "Dornoch Links" and "Scotland the Brave" to the theme from first-person shooter video game Battlefield 2, "In the Mood," and "Gonna Fly Now" (the theme from Rocky). The evening rests on the performances of the iconic Massed Pipe and Drums and other military ensembles as tentpoles throughout the concert, but in-between, all bets are off.
The theme for this year's Tattoo is Stories, celebrating sagas, myths, and legends. The event's planners have used this as an opportunity to showcase performers not just from Scotland, but around the world. A particular highlight is a section spotlighting artists from Trinidad and Tobago, trading earlier ensembles' snare drums for steel ones in a flashy, fun, and spectacular dance and costume-heavy performance—they've got some incredible butterfly showgirl costumes that would give The Ziegfeld Follies a run for its money. Also new to this year's Tattoo is the U.S. Air Force Band, making their debut playing a host of standards from the Great American Songbook (and "Juice" by Lizzo, which arguably can be considered a modern classic female empowerment anthem).
And it can't be overstressed how skilled these performers are. The Edinburgh Castle Esplanade is, for all intents and purposes, the size of an outdoor (American) football stadium. It is also just about the most difficult venue in which a performer could find themselves to be playing—and I'm not just referring to the fact that much of our performance was given under rainfall. Performing music outside as part of a large ensemble is tricky. Sound travels surprisingly slow, which makes attaining military-grade precision in those circumstances very difficult.
Either through lots of rehearsal or some special, strategic sound design (more likely a combination of both), there's no sign of difficulty with these performers. Every note and every move is perfectly crisp and clean, particularly notable in the quite syncopated Great American Songbook portion of the evening. One also marvels at the skill on display within the giant ensemble of bagpipe players. They spend the bulk of their performance playing in perfect unison. Bagpipes have such a sharp sound that even one slight error would stick out like a sore thumb playing like that, and not one was to be heard.
The locals are right—the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a very special performance, and one you should definitely put on your list if you're going to Edinburgh in August. It's a great way to make sure you get an expert taste of authentic Scottish culture and cultures from around the world. Mostly, it's just a really good time.
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo runs until August 26. See photos from the 2023 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo below.