I have been to Edinburgh once in my life, but it was long ago. It was in the summer of 1962, and I was on holiday with my sister who was 24; I was a 13 year old, so do not imagine that we attended the Edinburgh Fringe. The Fringe is as old as the Edinburgh Festival itself, but when I went to Edinburgh it was still the junior partner. Our visit was almost exactly at the same time that Beyond The Fringe was first making an impact on the nation’s cultural awareness, having premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Since then the Fringe has taken over completely, and people refer to the whole Festival as the Fringe. It is certainly not on the fringe of anything anymore. It is no longer the alternative but the main event.
We did not attend either the Fringe or the Edinburgh Arts Festival itself, but we did go to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Nothing could be more mainstream than the Tattoo, and nobody would ever have regarded something as much part of the establishment as that as anything to do with the Fringe. Nowadays the Tattoo may be regarded as a completely separate event; back in the sixties however it was a deemed to be part of the Edinburgh Festival.
The Edinburgh Festival was only 15 years old when I first went to Scotland. It was established in an effort to celebrate the post-war years of peace. The Military Tattoo was even newer, having been started in 1950. We had arrived at Waverley Station on the night sleeper from London. This was 1962 and we were hauled by a steam engine – one of the Gresley Pacifics. Since then the era of Diesel traction has come and gone, and today the train will be electric. Things may have changed somewhat, but you may still go by sleeper.
Although the military tattoo and the body art are both spelt the same way, the words have completely different etymologies. The body decoration comes from Polynesia and so does the word. The military tattoo comes from the Dutch word taptoe, which at first just meant a drum beat. In Dutch the word has evolved in the same way as the English word, to mean a military display.
The military tattoo is an evening show in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle. It begins in daylight, the floodlights being turned on as dusk falls. By the end of the performance it is quite dark, and the final act by the lone piper on the Castle walls is illuminated by a spotlight. Grandstands are erected for the spectators who even in 1962 had an international flavour. Today up to a third of the audience are from overseas. To accommodate the visitors to the Festival the Halls of Residence of the University are called into service, and it was in one of these that my sister and I stayed.
We had earlier that day been around the Castle and had seen Mons Meg. This is perhaps the most famous exhibit in the Castle. The huge cannon (technically a ‘bombard’) is a medieval piece of artillery, made in 1449 for Philip the Good of Burgundy. It was given by him to King James II of Scotland in 1457. With a calibre of 20 inches it is one of the largest guns ever made.
Our holiday in Scotland was mainly on the Isle of Skye, and our stay in Edinburgh was brief. I remember visiting Edinburgh zoo, not for and animals I saw there but because I tripped over as I was walking down a slope and fell flat on my face. I climbed the 287 steps to the top of the Scott Monument and we went on a coach tour of the city, including the hill known as Arthur’s Seat. We went to view the railway Forth Bridge and Queen’s Ferry; in those days there was no Forth road bridge. There was even the hint of one being planned.
It must have made an impression on this teenage sassenach, because he still remembers most of it.