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A Castle's Celebration of Military Music

In Scotland, Edinburgh Tattoo bands perform with precision, accuracy, and fanfare

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The flags fly on the ramparts. The torches flare. Tourists surge from hotels, boarding houses, and buses up the steep High Street which narrows medievally toward Edinburgh Castle, perched on the vertiginous crags of a (thankfully extinct) volcano above the Scottish capital. It is once again the setting for the annual Edinburgh Tattoo.

Throw together a couple of Independence Day parades, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and the trooping of the colors - and even then you wouldn't have the precise mix that gives the Tattoo its special flavor.

This popular event began in 1950 as the contribution of the Scottish regiments to the Edinburgh International Festival and now attracts an audience of 200,000 over three weeks (through August 23). It is carefully timed: Most performances start just before sunset and end in dark night.

You know at the outset that the occasion is essentially military because of the stiff personages in uniform strategically placed around the entrance. It is not entirely clear whether they are defending the castle from the tourist invasion, or welcoming it.

A surprisingly English-sounding man's voice boom-echoes over a loudspeaker asking who in the audience is from Canada, Ireland, Scandinavia, England, the United States. The largest cheer by far is American.

At last the Esplanade - the large rectangular forecourt backdropped theatrically by the castle rising against the clear sky (no rain tonight), starts to fill with rank upon rank of immaculate, extravagantly uniformed marching figures, reds-and-blacks, yellows-and-blacks, whites-and-blacks - and tartan everywhere. Make no mistake: This is genuinely an international display, with bands from various parts of the Commonwealth, but it is proudly Scottish. The kilts swing weightily, the drums relentlessly insist on the beat, and the air is deluged by the screaming crescendo of the pipes.

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