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Blog - The History of the Edinburgh Tattoo

Posted on 20/07/2014

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo runs throughout August and is the highlight of the Edinburgh Festival. Thousands of visitors arrive in Edinburgh every August to enjoy the Tattoo but what are its origins? The event brings together an entertaining display from the British Armed Forces and military brands from around the world.

The history of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo dates back to the 1950s but the history of the word itself and its meaning goes back even further.

The phrase tattoo is derived from the Flemish language. It dates back to the War of Austrian Succession in the 18th Century and to a time when British Forces were based in Flanders. During this period soldiers were recalled back to their barracks each night by drummers from the army. Their sounds were used as a signal for the tavern owners and staff to stop serving drinks and send the soldiers away. The ritual became known as doe den tap toe or turn of the taps and this was soon shortened to tap toe (pronounced ‘too’ in Flemish). Within time tap toe became tattoo and that’s the word that stuck with the British Forces. In simple terms, the tattoo was a dramatic way of calling last orders!

The Tattoo in Edinburgh

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo began as the final duty call of the night for the military drum band, it also acted as a way of calling soldiers home from the pub and ensuring that the beer stopped flowing, an attempt to ensure normal duty resumed in the morning. The military band also provided entertainment for the soldiers and by the mid-20th century they began playing at royal events and services for civilian spectators. The popularity of the bands grew and grew and soon spectators came from around the world to enjoy the music and the excitement of the environment.

The first official Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo was in 1950 and had a programme of just eight items. There were 6000 spectators sitting on simply constructed benches and grandstands to allow for better views.

The Modern Royal Edinburgh Tattoo

Throughout August over 200,000 are expected to arrive in Edinburgh for the Tattoo and these visitors are made up of a wide range of people, with as many as 30% from the rest of the United Kingdom outside Scotland and 35% from overseas. In total it’s believed more than 13 million people have attended the Tattoo over the years and the modern day grandstands are built to allow for the guests to sit on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle in style.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a worldwide event, it is televised across 30 countries and it’s believed as many as 100 million people watch it on television each year. It is broadcast annually on the BBC and performances of the Tattoo have been enjoyed in abridged format around the world during the 50th anniversary celebrations which included an overseas tour.

The Edinburgh Tattoo is such a popular event it has almost become a tradition in many families and the opportunity to visit is one that not many people would pass up.

Photo credit: Robert Partridge