A Castle's Celebration of Military Music

In Scotland, Edinburgh Tattoo bands perform with precision, accuracy, and fanfare

The flags fly on the ramparts. The torches flare. Tourists surge from hotels, boarding houses, and buses up the steep High Street which narrows medievally toward Edinburgh Castle, perched on the vertiginous crags of a (thankfully extinct) volcano above the Scottish capital. It is once again the setting for the annual Edinburgh Tattoo.

Throw together a couple of Independence Day parades, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and the trooping of the colors - and even then you wouldn't have the precise mix that gives the Tattoo its special flavor.

This popular event began in 1950 as the contribution of the Scottish regiments to the Edinburgh International Festival and now attracts an audience of 200,000 over three weeks (through August 23). It is carefully timed: Most performances start just before sunset and end in dark night.

You know at the outset that the occasion is essentially military because of the stiff personages in uniform strategically placed around the entrance. It is not entirely clear whether they are defending the castle from the tourist invasion, or welcoming it.

A surprisingly English-sounding man's voice boom-echoes over a loudspeaker asking who in the audience is from Canada, Ireland, Scandinavia, England, the United States. The largest cheer by far is American.

At last the Esplanade - the large rectangular forecourt backdropped theatrically by the castle rising against the clear sky (no rain tonight), starts to fill with rank upon rank of immaculate, extravagantly uniformed marching figures, reds-and-blacks, yellows-and-blacks, whites-and-blacks - and tartan everywhere. Make no mistake: This is genuinely an international display, with bands from various parts of the Commonwealth, but it is proudly Scottish. The kilts swing weightily, the drums relentlessly insist on the beat, and the air is deluged by the screaming crescendo of the pipes.

Bagpipes demand vast open space, here provided magnificently. The sound is not to be suffered in a drawing room. Someone observed in The Wall Street Journal once that "a true gentleman is a man who knows how to play the bagpipes - but doesn't."

But no one says the musicians of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, or of Her Majesty's Royal Marines, or of the 2nd Battalion of The Royal Gurkha Rifles have to be "gentlemen." They pipe and they know how.

Anyone who played with toy soldiers as a child feels instant rapport with the Tattoo. There is something rather breathtakingly admirable about all this accuracy and precision, regimented action en masse, impelled by the inevitability of the music.

The Massed Pipes and Drums, after their display of parade-ground technique, settle into a motionless formation that is difficult to interpret until you realize that a major theme this year is the 50th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (the Duke of Edinburgh). The formation, probably more readable from a helicopter, seemed to spell out the number 50 and something else.

The Massed Pipes and Drums were followed by a superbly trained all-female drill team from New Zealand that moved with the precision of a watch mechanism, fascinating the eye with intricately changing geometries. They interwove, criss-crossing paths, missing each other by fractions - and then proceeded to do the same movement backwards.

Then came the Royal Gurkhas hot footed from performing at the handover of Hong Kong. Pace is their thing: remarkably quick steps for one routine, funereally slow for another, and then gradually increasing the tempo, clapped on by the audience.

And so it went. Red-and-white dancers from Pakistan with air-slashing swords. Royal Marines in white hats (looking rather like firemen) apparently computer-operated by some exacting drill sergeant secreted in the castle walls.

The announcer stated that these young robots had been mere raw members of the human race not long ago - and now look at them.

It was the female Highland dancers - agile of foot, an attempt at a Scottish answer to "Riverdance" but without tap-shoes - and, even better, the calypso rhythms and swinging hips of the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force Steel Band and Drums, that came to the rescue with freer forms of expression.

Camels, elephants, horses, motorcyclists, and Royal Air Force police dogs have performed at some past Tattoos. None were present this year. Instead, it was the Royal Marines Comacchio Group that broke otherwise unrelieved music with a dramatic Defense of the Castle - rappelling and blank gunfire galore - against a band of renegades out to steal the Stone of Destiny (only recently returned to Scotland after a spell at Westminster). Easy to forget these are serious armed forces personnel rather than Hollywood imports.

The evening was ended, after a stirring combination of choral singing with more massed bands, by the strains of the traditional lone piper on high, spotlighted in the dark.

The stars were up now, the flags were lowered. A lone plane streaked overhead. Someone sneezed loudly. It was all irresistibly Scottish and Romantic.

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