Wi’ a hundred pipers an a’, an a’…
What could be more quintessentially Scottish than a pipe band? Modern Scotland tries hard to promote itself as more than the shortbread tin tartan cliché, but tourists and locals alike do love a good piper. We have had a very special couple of days, and they have been positively bursting with bagpipes, tartan and all that you could wish of a blog about living in a Scottish castle. On Friday we went to the Edinburgh Tattoo as guests of its Chief Executive and Producer, while yesterday we attended our local Highland Games where my husband was, for the first time, Chieftain of the Games.
People come from all over the world for the Royal Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle. It’s a glorious celebration of the armed forces and of military musical traditions, set against the unparalleled backdrop of Edinburgh Castle at sunset.
We were thrilled – I think actually that the word for which I am looking is ‘gobsmacked’ – to be invited as guests. Leaving the children with Granny (thank heavens for grannies: parents would have a poor social life without them) we changed into our tartan finery and dashed off to Edinburgh. It was very luxurious to be waved through all the police and army cordons around the castle and to be welcomed into the Tattoo’s official apartment, where impeccable staff took our coats and offered us champagne. Knowing the Chief Executive a little socially, we thought that perhaps he was generously having a friends’ evening as light relief from all the VIP guests whom he must entertain during the six weeks of the Tattoo. So we were even more amazed to find that we were amongst a deliciously eclectic mix of guests, including household names from the theatre and the aristocracy as well as eminent members of the armed forces and the world of international diplomacy. Dinner was a slightly surreal affair: I balanced a plate on my lap while perched on a window seat overlooking the top of the Royal Mile, watching the Tattoo crowds pouring past the soldiers onto the Esplanade, while chatting with a delightful senior diplomat (in her third language) and with an actor whose work I’ve admired for so long that it was difficult to be rational, let alone interesting. Luckily I had encountered him once before, in an artist’s community in Tuscany over twenty years ago when he was a guest and I was a young cook, so we were able to enjoy reminiscing together. He was very patient, anyway.
After dinner, we were all ushered into our VIP box in the stands for the 60th Anniversary Tattoo. The only other time I’d been to the Edinburgh Tattoo – when I was about seven – I remember that we huddled on hard seats in a cold wind. This time we were on padded theatre seats, under cover, with tartan rugs for our knees and a splendiferous view straight up to the main gate of the castle. I can’t be cool about this: frankly, I felt like a child on Christmas morning! It was a thrilling evening of entertainment. There were tall Bedouins on horseback from King Abdullah of Jordan’s personal bodyguard; Gurkhas playing ‘Zorba the Greek’ while accelerating to an impossible marching speed; a hilarious military band from New Zealand who broke out of their perfect drill formations to sing and boogie; a troupe of child motorcyclists from a deprived London borough whose heart-stopping trick riding I had to watch through my fingers; and many other fine acts, beginning and ending with the incomparable sight of the massed pipes and drums of all the bands marching together. One of the weel kent (well known) pipe tunes which they played is called ‘A Hundred Pipers’ but there were actually closer to two hundred. Imagine the drilling practice they must have put in, these bands from all over the globe, to march and play without a foot out of step or a note wrong.
After the fireworks, the National Anthem and Auld Lang Syne which ended the show, we went back to the apartment for a nightcap and to meet some of the singers and players from the performance. I still have to pinch myself to believe that we were treated to such a wonderful, spoiling evening by the generous and gregarious Officer commanding the Tattoo. We were jolly tired the next morning after our late night; but he and his wife were doing it all again on Saturday, the last night of the season.
Saturday brought commitments closer to home for us. If there is one day in the year when we cannot be anywhere else, it is the last Saturday in August, the day of our local Highland Games. In 1891 my husband’s great-grandfather was invited to be the honorary Chieftain, and the Chieftainship has been in his family ever since. This year, after his father had to step down owing to failing health, my husband was invited by the committee to become the fourth generation of his family to take on the mantle of Chieftain. Having watched and supported his father for many years, he knew what was expected and stepped up admirably. We got over our cultural cringe about the whole thing some years ago, finally realising that these traditions should be embraced and celebrated rather than apologised for. If the committee invites you to be Chieftain, you should accept with honour and enthusiasm. So we are happy to put on our tweeds and our clan tartans and make the most of this peculiarly Scottish occasion.
The Games open with the Chieftain leading the local pipe band through the town to the Games field. Having watched Grandad lead the march for many years, the boys were very excited to see their Daddy in front for the first time. We capered along the pavement beside him with the other tourists, catching up with him and with other family and friends in the main ring.
The Games committee is kind enough to set up a little marquee for the Chieftain’s party. This used to be set slap in the middle of the field, where we sat like goldfish in a bowl, separated from everyone except for the heavyweight competitors who were chucking stones and tree trunks around in alarming proximity. Last year we managed to persuade the committee to move us to one end of the field, and we can now watch in perfect safety and relative anonymity while our friends can reach us without embarrassment. A great relief all round. Mind you, I say anonymity, yet the first thing that happened after we arrived at the tent was a request for my husband’s autograph from an English tourist. Fame at last, eh.
While Daddy was off around the field talking to stall-holders and meeting visitors, the boys and their friends and cousins set off for the funfair which runs alongside. Personally, I loathe fairgrounds with their overpriced rides, their deafening noise and seedy atmosphere. The boys love their one afternoon at the fair, however, so we took them along as a reward for waiting so patiently while the adults had chatted over their picnic lunch in the marquee.
After the fairground rides we came back to the Games field to watch the Highland dancing, the haggis-eating competition (the local butcher has been busy for days making the haggises), the heavyweights tossing the caber and my favourite event, the Kiltie Dash, a sprint open to anyone in a kilt. Our family have not entered this yet, but I hope to persuade the boys one of these days. Last year the Kiltie Dash was livened up by some rather gorgeous blond Vikings from Norway, who were running in it for a Norwegian TV programme. Mind you, every man looks good in a kilt, from the toddlers to the grandfathers. Lucky me, to be surrounded by them!
By the end of an entertaining and sociable afternoon, we were all ready to pack up and head home. The late night and busy day were catching up with us and, after the boys were in bed, my husband changed out of his kilt into jeans and cooked us a curry (another fine Scottish tradition). As he put it with a chuckle, ‘Right, that’s enough poncing about feeling important, get in the kitchen and make the curry, man’. Until the last Saturday in August, 2011, it’s back to normality for another year.