Why the Tat­too has a ‘pipe’ line to suc­cess

The Royal Ed­in­burgh Mil­i­tary Tat­too is more than a show, it’s a cel­e­bra­tion of history and Scot­tish cul­ture


WHEN a hard­ened sol­dier from Scot­land’s fa­mously fe­ro­cious Black Watch reg­i­ment starts talk­ing evoca­tively about his tar­tan on the ram­parts of Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle, you pay at­ten­tion.

Even with the wind and rain of a Scot­tish sum­mer whip­ping about your ears un­der a night sky — or maybe be­cause of it.

Re­tired Ma­jor Ste­vie Small speaks with mil­i­tary ef­fi­ciency, yet un­ex­pected ro­mance, when he talks about his life’s quest to follow his “golden trail”, as he calls it, a four-decade-long jour­ney from Aberdeen south to Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle to play the bag­pipes with the Ed­in­burgh Mil­i­tary Tat­too, re­named the Royal Ed­in­burgh Mil­i­tary Tat­too in 2010.

Small’s mil­i­tary ca­reer be­gan when a Black Watch sol­dier and World War II vet­eran en­cour­aged him to take up the bag­pipes as a lad.

In­spired by the older man, Small fol­lowed in his men­tor’s foot­steps af­ter high school, en­list­ing in the Black Watch, an in­fantry unit born from the 1715 Ja­co­bite Re­bel­lion that made English sol­diers of Scot­tish High­land clans­men.

“The story … is ev­ery­body’s de­sire,” Small said, his pride barely con­tained as he spoke of a Scot­tish in­sti­tu­tion.

“So my trail took me through my mil­i­tary ca­reer … the trail is rep­re­sented by the gold thread that runs through this tar­tan,” he con­tin­ued, point­ing at his im­mac­u­late blue checked waist­coat, the tar­tan of the Tat­too’s own Pipers’ Trail di­vi­sion, which is jaun­tier than the drab dark green and black check of the Black Watch. “We have the white and the blue of the Scot­tish Saltire (Scot­land’s flag), you have the pur­ple of the Scot­tish this­tle and you have the golden thread which links us all together.”

In Oc­to­ber, Small’s “golden trail” il” will ill b bring i hi him to A Aus­tralia li as pro­duc­tion man­ager of the Tat­too’s fourth — and latest — Aus­tralian tour.

The Tat­too’s num­bers will swell dur­ing the Syd­ney sea­son from 1200 mu­si­cians and dancers to 1550.

That a pro­duc­tion celebratin­g her­itage, cul­ture and tra­di­tional mu­sic has not lost its ap­peal in 69 years — in fact has sold out its three-week an­nual sea­son for the past 21 years when at home at Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle — is a credit to a hand­ful of British Armed Forces of­fi­cers who have pro­duced the Ed­in­burgh Tat­too since it was estab­lished in 1950.

The Tat­too’s cur­rent and eighth chief ex­ec­u­tive is English Brigadier David All­frey, the man charged with mod­ernising the show dur­ing the past decade.

Today’s Tat­too is an open-air spec­ta­cle with fire­works, light pro­jec­tions, a rock-styled back­ing band, a full-scale replica of Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle and an on­line mer­chan­dise stall that sells ev­ery­thing from sweets to cash­mere scarfs, from woollen hairy High­land “coos” (or cows to the rest of us) and sporran-styled hand­bags, to Christ­mas tree baubles filled with gin.

All­frey, a for­mer Scots Dra­goon Guard who once dreamt of f a post-mil­i­tary ili ca­reer as a bi big­time rock ’n’ roll pro­ducer — “like Brian Epstein” of The Bea­tles — is sat­is­fied the show has broad­ened its in­ter­na­tional ap­peal dur­ing his ten­ure.

But he said its suc­cess is pri­mar­ily due to one thing that has lit­tle to do with the mil­i­tarised pre­ci­sion with which it is planned and ex­e­cuted — it is a great, big, noisy, live mu­sic event.

“This is a show that is prin­ci­pally about live mu­sic. It’s live mu­sic on an enor­mous scale. There are no rock bands that can pull together a cast of 1550 peo­ple, which is what is com­ing to Syd­ney. It’s huge. That makes an enor­mous noise and it is ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic,” All­frey said.

On the bill in Syd­ney will be 13 mil­i­tary bands rep­re­sent­ing na­tions in­clud­ing the UK, France, Switzer­land, In­dia and In­done­sia, 320 pipes and drums, 100 High­land dancers, 865 mil­i­tary per­form­ers, 40 Scot­tish fid­dlers, per­form­ers from Van­u­atu, the Solomon Is­lands, Tonga and Fiji, and a 100-strong Aus­tralian Fed­er­a­tion Guard.

From New Zealand also come crowd favourites from last month’s Ed­in­burgh show h — Lochiel, a back­wards march­ing women’s drill team and the New Zealand Army Band, whose uni­formed haka stops the show.

Brig All­frey said that while there is plenty of nos­tal­gia in the show for older fans, the Tat­too remains in­no­va­tive.

“Each show is de­signed from scratch and is unique,” he said.

The Ed­in­burgh Tat­too’s longevity can also be at­trib­uted to the world-class ci­ti­zen per­form­ers — men and women — in the show.

Aus­tralians have be­come part of the Tat­too pil­grim­age.

Alas­dair McLaren, a pipe ma­jor with the West Aus­tralia Po­lice Pipe Band, moved from Perth to Glas­gow in 1997 af­ter per­form­ing with the Tat­too.

The 40-year-old now holds the re­spected po­si­tion as Pipe Ma­jor of the Tat­too’s own pipe band, the Pipers’ Trail.

Tyson Rech is in his sec­ond year with the Tat­too af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to the show last year when his Aus­tralian high school, Bris­bane Boys High, per­formed with the Tat­too at Ed­in­burgh.

“I came across last year and had a great time,” Rech said.

“I picked the bag­pipes up in grade six and just kept go­ing with it and I joined a band out­side of school … and from there de­cided to come across and do some in­ter­na­tional gigs which has been fan­tas­tic.”

There are no rock bands that peo­ple, can pull together a cast of 1550 which is what is com­ing to Syd­ney

Tat­too chief ex­ec­u­tive Brigadier David All frey


Con­duc­tor Kevin Roberts mar­shals the bands.

The vis­ual spec­ta­cle and the fire­works have added a mod­ern touch to this tra­di­tional en­ter­tain­ment.

The pipers are a huge part of the show run by (right) Brigadier David All­frey.

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