One of the great highlights, and one of the biggest tourist attractions, of Edinburgh in August is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The Tattoo takes place at Edinburgh Castle and it’s impossible to miss either the stands, towering above the city, or the fireworks that erupt every night upon the culmination of the show.
The first official Tattoo was performed in 1950, and it has attracted thousands of visitors since. I had attended the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Halifax, N.S. with my parents several years ago, and knew that I would have to attend the Edinburgh one should I be in the area. I had been warned that tickets sell out months in advance, but with some planning and a flexible schedule I was able to procure a regularly priced ticket and attend the show.
Describing the Tattoo is very difficult to someone who has no concept of it, but it’s a visual and musical spectacle. There will be pipe bands (of course), there are dances and performances from throughout the world (there was Indian inspired highland dancing at the one I attended), there are military exhibitions including precision drill teams… it runs just over an hour and a half and, at least for me, the time just slipped by.
A word of warning – tickets to the Tattoo can be expensive and there are packages for every budget ranging from £30 seats to £200 packages including dinner, cocktails or whiskey tastings.
You can order tickets online, either allowing the website to choose the best ticket in your price range / section, or picking from a map. If you are a solo traveller and choose the map option, be warned: you can’t choose a seat that is part of a pair or that will leave three beside you.
Once you acquire your tickets they can either be mailed to your house, or you can go to the ticket office in Edinburgh to pick them up once you arrive in the city. There was no line when I arrived – it took minutes.
I did see a few people selling tickets on the Royal Mile, between the Cathedral and Johnston Terrace. Some may have been scalpers, but there were also tour guides who have too many tickets for the number of people attending and were looking to unload the seats at something close to face value. This could be a viable option if you arrive in Edinburgh and are looking to take in the show at the last minute.
I should note that if fireworks are an important consideration for you then the late Saturday shows have an extended fireworks display. This is clearly marked on the ticketing website.
The Tattoo is held at Edinburgh Castle, where the stands are set up in u-shape around a large performing area. The performance makes use of the wall at the back – this means, of course, that the most expensive tickets are generally at the base of the “U” near the royal box area. I sat along the sides, closer towards the base of the U, and fairly high up so that I could see the formations and take in the entire visual spectacle.
Whether you sit high or low is up to you – I was fairly high, but I enjoyed the view and didn’t feel I was missing anything. The worst part was waiting for everyone to get out of the stands at the end of the night.
The official website has a section called “Queuing Arrangements” which tells attendees to wait along Johnson Terrace for the gates to open.
Based on my experience – and after talking to a few individuals handling crowd control – there is absolutely no reason to line up. The show will not start early, there isn’t a lot to see, and if you spend your time in a local pub you can use the washroom there instead of worrying about using the facilities before the performance.
I hate lines and generally try to avoid them whenever possible. The Tattoo makes it easy to do so – I strolled up about 15-20 minutes before the performance and walked right in.
The website cheerfully boasts that there has never been a cancellation in the history of the Tattoo. Instead of this meaning the Tattoo has been blessed by the weather for 65+ years, it simply means that the show will go on no matter what.
You can bring a poncho or rain coat with you, and if you forget one then (if there’s rain in the forecast) almost every shop on the Royal Mile will be ready to sell you one. Umbrellas are not allowed, for what are probably obvious reasons, but if you splurge on a slightly more expensive ticket you could find yourself in covered seating.
Scotland gets a bit chilly at night, and you are sitting high above the city, so do bring some layers. I also splurged on the £1 seat cushion rental, which was possibly the smartest thing I have ever done. Having a nice, cushy layer to sit on between my jeans and the metal made the entire experience much more comfortable.
Should you go?
Yes! This was easily one of the highlights of my trip to Scotland and London, and despite the relatively high cost of the ticket (and my status as an unemployed MBA student), I knew that I would regret not taking the opportunity to see the Tattoo.