Tattoo

I’ve not got any, even though apparently one third of Scots aged 26-40 have at least one.  Ok, so I fall out of that age bracket, but I reckon I’m unlikely to fall into the ‘inked up’ category at this stage of my life; although you never know, didn’t David Dimbleby take a rush of blood to the head and have a scorpion needled onto his shoulder to mark his 75th birthday?  Recently, I listened to a radio documentary about the history of tattoos. The naturalist and botanist, Joseph Banks, who sailed to Tahiti with Captain Cook on The Endeavour in 1770, brought the practice to the attention of the western world.  Banks was one of the first to write about south sea islanders with skin markings, pieced in using impregnated shark teeth.  He noted the Polynesian word for the practice as being, ‘tattow’.  European sailors then began to adopt tattoos for themselves, beginning with a limited number of symbols, such as an anchor for sailing the Atlantic, a turtle for crossing the equator and a swallow for completing journeys totalling 5,000 nautical miles. No coincidence then that the port town of Liverpool, in the 1870’s, had one of the first recorded tattoo parlours. In Victorian England they were novel, exotic, and expensive; tattoos were a sign of wealth – George V and Tsar Nicholas II both had one.  Not so novel now, I live over a tattoo parlour and there are two more within a stone’s throw on the same street, but this city is also home to the biggest tattoo of them all, which has nothing at all to with swirls of ink.

The ‘tattoo’ that jostles for a place on Edinburgh’s podium throughout August, is the one whose names derives from a 17th-century Dutch phrase, ‘doe den tap toe’ – meaning, ‘turn off the tap’.  Army commanders, concerned to get their soldiers back into billeted lodgings at a reasonable hour before they became too inebriated, used their regiment’s drumming corps to beat out messages to tavern owners.  The drumming told them to turn off their ale kegs.  The term stuck and, with the establishment of modernbarracks and full military bands, it became shortened and modified to ‘tattoo’.  Eventually the ‘tattoo’ became the description given to the last duty call of the day, as well as to a ceremonial form of evening entertainment performed by military musicians.  (Have I lectured you enough?)

So, whilst I have no bodily tattoos I got well and truly tattooed-up this week at the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle.  What an organisational masterpiece: performers from all over the world pipe and drum, flute and fiddle, and raise enough noise to excoriate the sky.  Watching it felt a bit like overeating: it’s tantalising and delicious, but there’s just too much, yet you can’t stop.  I expected it to be traditional, with old songs like, Soldier Soldier, Won’t You Marry Me, and it was that, to a degree.  Scots Guards piping Strathspeys marched towards the Royal Irish Regiment who were fluting out The Star of the County Down, and they merged into one like a confluence river.  The New Zealand Army Band, topped with lemon squeezer hats (that’s what they’re called and that’s what they look like) momentarily dropped their brass instruments to do the Hakka, then seamlessly moved into This Is Me from The Greatest Showman (I know…).  Meanwhile, marching drill girls with incredibly short skirts, white patent boots and eyes on the back of their heads snaked and funnelled and moved as one.  A Bavarian Hunting Band, complete with Oktoberfest Frauleins carrying steins of beer, roused wild boar from their sleep with blasting tubas.  Harry Belafonte’s, Island In the Sun, brought a touch of the exotic when played by the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band in their all-white uniform, gold epaulettes and green peaked caps.  About fifty Shetland Fiddlers appeared draped with tartan sashes and frenetic bowing arms, followed by the springiest highland dancers I have ever seen.  The Lyonnais Artillery Band, wearing little flat-topped képis, seemed a serious bunch until they started cutting some nifty footwork to Dixieland.  I think the troupe from China were the largest; mostly playing trumpets, they rotated around a small, energetic woman striking a huge drum on wheels, which, for all the size of her, she battered like an angry blacksmith.  The end was the most impressive when all 1,200 performers filled the esplanade.  Dancers, accompanied by thunderous drumming and piping, swirled in and out and through each other in perfectly choreographed kaleidoscopic moves.  I thought it was all ending with Queen’s, The Show Must Go On, but it segued into more. Above it all, sat the castle: silent, watchful, majestic and refusing to bat an eyelid at kilted girls with top knots and plaid socks raised their arms, pointed their toes and highland flung their way through another Greatest Showman number.  I walked home feeling over-stimulated and semi-dazed.  Fabulous, but that will do me until I’m 75.

Soldier, Soldier Won’t You Marry Me,  Traditional Song

Oh soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me?

With your musket, fife, and drum?

Oh no, sweet maid, I cannot marry thee

For I have no coat to put on

Then up she went to her grandfather’s chest

And got him a coat of the very, very best

he got him a coat of the very, very best

And the soldier put it on.

 

Oh soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me?

With your musket, fife, and drum?

Oh no, sweet maid, I cannot marry thee

For I have no hat to put on

Then up she went to her grandfather’s chest

And got him a hat of the very, very best

She got him a hat of the very, very best

And the soldier put it on.

 

Oh soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me?

With your musket, pipe, and drum?

Oh no, sweet maid, I cannot marry thee

For I have no boots to put on

Then up she went to her grandfather’s chest

And got him boots of the very, very best

She got him a pair of the very, very best

And the soldier put them on.

 

Oh soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me?

With your musket, fife, and drum?

Oh no, sweet maid, I cannot marry thee

For I have no gloves to put on

Then up she went to her grandfather’s chest

And got him gloves of the very, very best

She got him a pair of the very, very best

And the soldier put them on.

 

Now soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me?

With your musket, fife, and drum?

Oh no, sweet maid, I cannot marry thee

For I have a wife at home.

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