An Unforgettable Experience: The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Updated August 1, 2019
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Royal Military Edinburgh Tattoo Scotland 2017

As a child, I distinctly remember sitting crosslegged on the carpet in front of the TV at my Grandma’s house, the volume on loud, with the sounds of Scottish pipe bands filling the room. I watched as group after group marched out, filling the space in front of a magical looking castle, while girls wearing kilts danced in circles. I’d watched Scottish marching bands on school fields in my hometown in New Zealand, but it was nothing compared to the scale of this.

Around twenty years later, and the anticipation in the air was palpable, as people from all across the globe were gathered in the stands perched on top of Castle Rock in Edinburgh. I felt like the excitement bubbling in my chest as if I was a child again, eagerly waiting for the show to begin.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place at the height of Edinburgh’s Festival season in August. It’s a truly international event with performers from all over the world, and different countries every year. The audience is international too, generally comprised of one-third international visitors, one-third Scottish attendees and one-third of visitors from the rest of the UK. Added to that, there are around 100 million people who watch the performance on television around the world. That’s right. Millions of people see the Edinburgh Military Tattoo every year, and it’s going from strength to strength!

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Highland Military Performers

But what is the Edinburgh military tattoo?

If you’ve never had the opportunity to experience a military tattoo elsewhere, then you’re probably wondering what I’m even talking about. Firstly, it’s nothing to do with getting a tattoo! The name “tattoo” comes from the 17th and 18th centuries when a cry of ‘doe den tap toe’ which meant ‘turn off the taps’ and piping and drums signaled to the soldiers that the pubs were closed and they must return to the barracks.

Fast-forward to now, and a Scottish military tattoo is known as a performance of music or a display by the armed forces. But even if you’ve been to another Scotland military tattoo, the most famous and grand of all is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, affectionally known in Edinburgh simply as “the Tattoo”.

Edinburgh Tattoo: Marching bands in lines

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Military Band Marching

The story behind the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

The first official Edinburgh Military Tattoo took place in 1950, when 6000 people sat on wooden benches on the Edinburgh Castle esplanade, and watched an eight-item performance that was more about military prowess and what they could do. Nowadays the performances can be anything from marching bands to singing and dancing or even acrobatic style shows.

If you visit Edinburgh between July and September you can’t miss the stands on the Edinburgh Castle esplanade, where around 220,000 people sit to see the show. It runs in August alongside other hugely popular Edinburgh Festivals like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival (you can read a quick guide to all the Festivals in Edinburgh in August here!).

Since the first Edinburgh Tattoo in 1950, no show has ever been cancelled, despite the unpredictable Scottish weather. So make sure you bring a warm and waterproof coat! 

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Highland Dancers in front of Edinburgh Castle

What you can expect at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Top-quality performances, entertainment, and fun

But what will you actually see if you get tickets to the Tattoo? Each year there is a different theme, with 2019 having the theme “Kaleidoscope” after the invention by the Scottish Sir David Brewster in about 1816. Each year one of the UK’s armed forces lead the military tattoo, but groups from all over the world will also perform.

When I went to the Edinburgh Tattoo I saw everything from huge Scottish pipe bands, to jazz and blues singing Americans, rugby-playing and dancing Kiwi’s, motorbike stunts, Shetland fiddlers, highland dancers, and much more. You can expect to be treated to a wide variety of performances and entertainment, designed to showcase talent from around the world.

During the performance, Edinburgh Castle is like another cast member, with video and pictures being projected onto the facade. So many cables are used in the show to get all of this right that if they were spread out in a line they would reach from Edinburgh to Glasgow!

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Military Band in Highland Dress

While the performances are different every year there are some things that stay the same.

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo always beings with the marching of a pipe band across the drawbridge of Edinburgh Castle.

Just before the end of the show, a lone piper plays from the top of Edinburgh Castle. The first piper, Major George Stoddart played every performance for the first 11 years, and his son Major Gavin Stoddart has taken up the mantle since then.

The end of each performance is heralded with the famous Robert Burns anthem, Auld Lang Syne, and attendees are expected to cross their arms and grasp the hands of their neighbours while singing along. 

The thing is, the Edinburgh Tattoo is so unique that it’s difficult to explain the experience, and it’s one of those things that is really best seen for yourself. While the show has travelled overseas four times in the past, including all the way to New Zealand and Australia complete with a mock-up of Edinburgh Castle, there’s nothing like seeing it in person and for many people, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Highland Danders in Circle infront of marching band and Edinburgh Castle

How to get tickets to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2019

Official tickets to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2019 can be booked online. The performance will take place from the 2-24 August 2019 at 9pm from Monday – Friday and at 7.15pm and 10.30pm on Saturdays.

Tickets for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo are usually sold out in advance, so if you’re planning to visit Edinburgh in the summer of 2019 then I’d recommend buying your tickets soon, although you may be able to grab some last-minute seats as well so keep an eye out. 

There is also a preview show held right before the season begins, and tickets for that only go on sale just before.

Click here to buy tickets for the 2019 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Marching Girls in lines in front of Edinburgh Castle and military band

The best seats for the Edinburgh Tattoo

Choosing the best seats for the Edinburgh Tattoo is really about personal preference and budget. The higher-priced tickets are at the end of the esplanade, looking directly onto Edinburgh Castle. These tickets are widely considered to be the best because you’re able to see everything face on. However, sitting down the sides of the esplanade doesn’t give you a bad view by any means. The performances are made to be seen from all angles, so you won’t be missing out.

Personally, I think the best seats for the military tattoo are a little further from the Castle, around about the middle down the sides. That way the price is more affordable, you can see everything projected on the Castle, and all the bands marching out towards you for longer. Of course, if you can splash out for the tickets facing the Castle then by all means do!

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - New Zealand Army Band

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is part of the Edinburgh Festivals, which make Edinburgh an international festival city. There are 11 festivals across the year, and with five Edinburgh festivals in August (check out this quick guide to the August festivals). 

ALL of Edinburgh’s festivals should really be on your bucket list (here’s why), but I have a special spot in my heart for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I may have seen it on TV as a child, but there’s nothing like seeing the sights and sounds come together to form the truly brilliant show that is the Royal Military Edinburgh Tattoo in person. It’s an unforgettable and unique experience!

Have you seen the Edinburgh Tattoo in person or on TV? Tell me about your experience! 

Read More: Why Edinburgh’s Festivals Have To Be On Your Bucket List

Read More: A Quick Guide to Edinburgh’s Festivals in August

Read More: 50+ Fun Things to Do in Edinburgh)

Sonja x

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Scotland Flag on Edinburgh Castle and Military Bands and Dancers in lines on forecourt

Royal Military Edinburgh Tattoo Scotland 2017

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to attend the show by invitation from Edinburgh Festivals, but of course, all opinions are my own. I’ve been on my own too and would go again and again!

This post was originally written in 2016. 

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Royal Military Edinburgh Tattoo Scotland 2017 Royal Military Edinburgh Tattoo Scotland 2017

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24 Comments

  • Reply Jen Morrow November 27, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    I love Edinburgh and experiencing Scottish culture. This looks amazing! I have only seen this on TV, how awesome to watch it live.

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Edinburgh is a really great city! Being able to see the Tattoo in person was a really great experience, I’d highly recommend it if you get the chance!

  • Reply Katie November 27, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Wow what an incredible experience! The view from your seat is amazing and has obviously given you some fantastic pics! I didn’t know you would have to get tickets so far in advance! 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 9:41 am

      There can still be tickets available closer to the time (although it usually sells out) but the best seats go much quicker of course! It was a chilly Scottish summer night but well worth being up there for it 🙂

  • Reply Mel I TravelingMel November 28, 2016 at 8:14 am

    What an interesting history. It sounds like quite an exciting experience. I was unaware of the Tattoo, but now I might have to put it on my list of things to see and do!

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 9:40 am

      I hope you do! Or try and catch it on TV at least :).

  • Reply Arzo Travels November 28, 2016 at 10:26 am

    The word tattoo totally confused me at the beginning. Thanks for clearing it 🙂 Would love to watch it, either in person or on TV.

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 4:29 pm

      Haha it’s funny because I knew it since I was a child but I can imagine how confusing it must be!!

  • Reply Courtney Jones November 28, 2016 at 10:37 am

    I’ve never heard of a military tattoo before! It looks like a super interesting thing to experience!

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 4:32 pm

      It was so much fun! And the performers seem to be having as much fun as the audience. I’d highly recommend seeing one, and especially this one 🙂

  • Reply Theresa November 28, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Oh my goodness, I am so envious! We went to Edinburgh a few years ago, but I wasn’t able to get leave from work for the period of the Tattoo. It must have been AMAZING!

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 4:34 pm

      It was so great! I really hope you’ll be able to make it back and see it sometime!

  • Reply kathy (from walkaboutwanderer.com) November 28, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    I absolutely love Edinburgh but have not yet been to see the tattoo. Great description of the Tattoo AND I really didn’t know that it has never been cancelled. Edinburgh weather is really known to be bad. I have first time experience of that. Thanks for such an interesting post.

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 4:46 pm

      I know it’s truly incredible it’s never been cancelled! I’d definitely recommend taking a coat though haha. It may be summer but that doesn’t mean it’s warm!

  • Reply Clare November 28, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    This looks amazing. It isn’t something I have ever really watched either, I have kind of seen it in passing on the tv but never sat down and watched it. It’s making me think I need a trip to Edinburgh to watch it 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 28, 2016 at 9:13 pm

      I’d highly recommend a trip to Edinburgh for all the festivals anyhow! This is like the icing on the cake if you go 🙂

  • Reply LC November 29, 2016 at 1:28 am

    I’ve got a pretty long list of “to-dos” for Edinburgh and the Tattoo is pretty high up on it! Can only imagine how excited your would have been seeing it in the flesh for the first time.

    • Reply Migrating Miss November 29, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      I’m glad to see it’s on your list! Like a little kid haha.

  • Reply Josh November 29, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    Hey Sonja. Lovely post 🙂 I was up in Edinburgh for the festival last August and for Hogmanay a few years ago and had an amazing time on both occasions. The city has such character and there is a great buzz about the place at night. You’re so lucky to have seen the Tattoo – that’s definitely on my bucket list! Love the Bowie image 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss December 2, 2016 at 2:50 pm

      Thanks Josh! Edinburgh really does know how to put on a great festival that’s for sure. I hope you make it back to see the Tattoo sometime! The Bowie tribute was really something :).

  • Reply Karey Durst December 5, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    We just booked our cruise – visiting Edinburgh on Aug 9, 2018!!

    • Reply Migrating Miss December 6, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Perfect! I hope you’re planning on going to the Tattoo 😀

  • Reply Anuj Srivastava December 16, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Edinburg is a beautiful city and thanks for sharing this amazing history.. I visited Edinburgh 15 years back, and now will be going there next year with kids, and there are so many things here I wanted my kids to see, will add this one for sure.

    • Reply Migrating Miss December 17, 2016 at 9:57 pm

      That’s so exciting you’re going back with your kids! It really is a great place, and I do hope you make it to the Tattoo 🙂

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