EDINBURGH in August. Or rather, Edinburgh this August. No Edinburgh International Festival, no Fringe, no Book Festival, no flyering on the Royal Mile, no tents on the Meadows and Bristo Square. No comedians in the Pleasance Courtyard (apart maybe from Arthur Smith), no Oxbridge student revues, no BBC broadcasters on a jolly up from London, no Fringe brochures in every shop, no literary star-spotting around Charlotte Square.

And no Tattoo. Or rather no Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, to give the event its official name. Which means no temporary stands built up around Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade, no soldiers marching, no massed pipe and drums, no nightly fireworks, no royalty, British or otherwise, no incongruous celebrities (David Hasselhoff of all people turned up in 2012), no BMX bikers, no gymnasts, no RAF police dogs or even RAF flyovers, and no lone piper on the castle ramparts.

For the first time in its 70-year history the Tattoo has been cancelled. In March, Brigadier David Allfrey, Chief Executive and Producer of the Tattoo, who was set to step down after this year’s show, had initially been bullish about carrying on, but by the start of April the true scale of disruption Covid-19 was going to cause was becoming clear.

“Of course, it’s not been easy,” admits Rucelle Soutar, the chief operating officer of the Tattoo. “We were incredibly disappointed to have to cancel our 70th year celebrations. However, the safety of our team, performers and audiences will always be paramount. The current circumstances are unique.”’

There are plans to commemorate the anniversary but there will be no big party at the castle. It will just have to rely on memories this year. Still, there are plenty of those.

An event that has grown from modest beginnings (it cost just £200 to stage in its second year proper back in 1951) to a multi-million-pound endeavour that regularly welcomes participants from Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Guests too. And that’s before you add the 100 million (give or take) who watch it on the telly around the world.

The story of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo (it was only given the Royal legend in 2010 to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) stretches back to 1949 when a show entitled Something About a Soldier was performed at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Gardens below the castle. The show was produced by Lieutenant Colonel George Malcolm of Poltalloch. He was also responsible for another show, The King’s Men, on the Castle Esplanade the same year.

In their wake, the then Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir Andrew Murray, invited the General Officer Commanding the Army in Scotland to present a military show which would be called the Edinburgh Tattoo (a reference to a Dutch phase for a signal made by drummers or trumpeters to tell taverns to stop serving and soldiers to return to barracks).

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A year later the first Tattoo proper, produced by Lieutenant Colonel George Malcolm, was held, attracting 100,000 visitors over 20 performances, including the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The tradition of fireworks began that year, too. In 1951, audience numbers rose to 160,000 and the event was televised for the first time.

In the years (and decades) that followed, the event has gone from strength to strength, attracting military bands from near and far to perform, although, perhaps understandably, it would take until well after the fall of the Iron Curtain before Russians were invited to take part. That came in 1998 when the Central Band of the Russian Navy performed at the Tattoo.

Russians apart, the Tattoo has attracted royalty and celebrities in equal measure. By the mid-1960s stars such as Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Googie Withers were coming to watch.In the years since everyone from Sean Connery to Ewan McGregor has attended.

The 1960s also saw some Tattoo traditions become firmly established. Broadcaster Tom Fleming covered the event for the first time for television in 1966 and he would continue to do so every year after for more than four decades.

Still, it would take more than a decade, until 1977 in fact, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, before Officer Cadet Elaine Marnoch became the first female Lone Piper.

If anything, the Tattoo has become increasingly popular over the decades. After all, it wasn’t until 1999 that it became a sell-out event. But it has been one ever since.

In the 21st century there have been no shortage of events to commemorate. In 2005, the Tattoo marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and 60 years since the end of the Second World War. In 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the First World War was marked. Four years later, it was the centenary of the RAF in 2018 that was celebrated. And last year the Tattoo commemorated the 70th anniversary of NATO.

The misfortune is that the Tattoo cannot mark its own 70th birthday this month. But maybe that just means all the more cake for everyone next year.

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Rucelle Soutar is the chief operating officer at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. She took up the position in 2018 having previously been head of finance at the organisation. Here she talks about the impact of coronavirus and her favourite Tattoo memories:

What is your own history with the Tattoo?

I was brought up in Dumfries and did not have much opportunity to go to the Tattoo as a young child.  However, my parents were from Edinburgh and would talk about the Tattoo and watch it on TV every year. Seeing it in person and as an employee of the organisation in 2014 blew me away – the performers, the technology, and the effects. I couldn’t believe the way the show had developed, and it continues to do so every year in its 70-year history, it surprises me every time I see it. 

My favourite memory of the Tattoo is definitely 2018, I was appointed COO that year and we also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the RAF. We told the story beautifully and I remember when I saw the show on opening night, I was in awe of how it had all come together. I was also part of the team when we donated our first £1m to charity in 2016. The charitable element of the organisation is very important to me so that was also a really proud moment.

What are you going to miss most this August?

The atmosphere and excitement that an August in Edinburgh normally brings. There is nothing better and, personally, no greater thrill for me than seeing audiences from around the world descend on our city and take in our show on Edinburgh Castle’s Esplanade as well as all the other Festival activities.

What are you most looking forward to next year when the Tattoo returns?

Watching the pipes and drums as they march out onto Edinburgh Castle’s Esplanade. The traditional elements of the show are some of my favourite so as soon as I see them in position and hear the pipes begin to play, I’ll know we’re back.

Do you think the coronavirus is going to be a challenge for the Tattoo going forward given that it is such an international event?

Like all businesses and organisations, we are currently navigating through the weeks and months ahead and at present, we don’t know how we will continue to be impacted by the Covid-19 situation.

However, we have been working behind the scenes and have an incredibly dedicated team of people who continue to provide the inspiring vision and leadership needed to further develop the invaluable work the Tattoo does and has done for 70 years.