David Allfrey, Producer and Chief Executive of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
David walks us through West Princes Street Gardens. He wants to show us something. As we walk he comments on the birdsong, on the blue sky and on the seagulls that strut with charming insolence on the grass. He tells us of his love of music and painting and fishing and walking his spaniel, and as we stroll past the lawns where the robotic lawnmowers are trimming the grass he plots a course through his military history including his two tours of Kosovo, a life-changing riding accident and thirty-five years as an Officer in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
‘I’m interested in everything,’ he says with enthusiasm and tells us that his role as producer and chief executive of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is ‘the best job in the world.’ The charity he heads puts on a sell-out show in Edinburgh Castle each year to 220,000 people. It showcases the world’s best military bands and dancers: ‘a hundred minutes of sound, light, projection, special effects and military and cultural offerings at the very centre of Edinburgh’s festivals.’ David travels the world to audition the acts and thrives on creating a show that both dazzles and entertains its local and international audience and ‘allows a really intimate moment between the armed forces and the society it represents.’
This summer will see the sixty-ninth Tattoo. The very first Tattoo, in 1949, took place in West Princes Street Gardens’ very own Ross Theatre. The show was called ‘Something about a Soldier’ and was an ‘informal contribution from the military of piping, dancing and displays.’ In essence and message, little has changed over nearly seventy years of the Tattoo. ‘We live in a world where everything is changing so very fast,’ David says, ‘and I think sometimes we like to have something that hasn’t changed so much.’ Now of course, there are fireworks and special effects timed to the tenth of a second, and tickets sold in a hundred countries, but there is still a Lone Piper and Auld Lang Syne is still sung at the end of the Tattoo.
The simplicity at the heart of the Tattoo chimes exactly with the simple essence of West Princes Street Gardens. ‘It’s an extraordinary moment of calm,’ David says of spending time in the Gardens – ‘a lovely place to divert from the pavement in all weathers.’ He appreciates the role the Gardens play in the wellbeing of Edinburgh’s residents and workers and tourists. ‘All of us enjoy the hubbub that goes on around us. But occasionally you need to drop out of that noise, if only for a few moments. Sit and have a cup of coffee – we’ve got birdsong behind us, it’s a gleaming day.’
Because the new Garden designs will have peace and simplicity at their heart, David is enthusiastic about the planned improvements. ‘It doesn’t need changing but it does need showcasing,’ he says. ‘There is a real opportunity to showcase this extraordinary Quaich-shaped valley in the middle of Edinburgh with all its history and to make it accessible and very exciting as a cultural and recreational space.’ He looks around him at the strutting seagulls (of which David has a bemusing fondness), the gathered tourists and the gardeners at work. There’s a kind of focused tranquillity in the green space this morning. If David had more time he would set up his easel and paint.
We climb the slope above the Ross Theatre and stop at the entrance to the Gardens on Princes Street. ‘So this is the boy here,’ David says of the bronze statue of the Royal Scots Grey soldier astride a stately horse on a high rock plinth. Engraved on plaques are the names of soldiers from David’s regiment who have died in action, including in the First World War, Iraq and in Kosovo. His tone of voice changes as he tells us of the deep significance of this memorial for him personally and the memories he has of consoling bereaved parents whose children’s names have been added. ‘It’s a powerful place,’ he says. ‘It’s visceral. It’s quite intense.’ The horseman stands stark against today’s blue sky as David explains that because of the connection he has with it, the memorial is his favourite part of West Princes Street Gardens.
He points out the view of Edinburgh Castle high on the skyline. ‘This is quite the best view of the Castle,’ he says, and shows us the Tattoo’s seating stands, already in situ for the August performances and glinting silver in the sunshine. ‘I can go out on the gantries and look down on the Gardens,’ David says. ‘The view is astonishing. There’s a great swathe of green and the trees are laid out at proper intervals.’ Walking among those trees is one of David’s pleasures on his way to and from his office in Cockburn Street.
Could there be collaboration between the Tattoo and West Princes Street Gardens? They’re so close and connected and people already gather in the gardens to watch the fireworks. ‘Yes,’ says David. ‘I’m really excited about the Quaich Project. Shouldn’t we be streaming the fireworks and the pageantry from the Castle straight into Princes Street Gardens? And perhaps giving small concerts during the daytime or in the evenings and at other times of the year?’ There’s his enthusiasm again, his ability to stand on imagination’s gantry and stare at the future.
Here is where we’ll leave him, in this favourite, poignant spot of his, looking beyond the memorial to the Castle and those stands, his head full of plans for the sixty-ninth Tattoo and the seventieth birthday celebrations the following year. We’ll let him have some peace before he strolls back to his office through the gardens: ‘Everyone needs that little moment of calm and everything seems so much easier.’ Come back soon, David. The trees and the peace and the seagulls will be waiting for you.
West Princes Street Gardens' Head Gardener, David, talks about his passion for gardening - including the floral clock of course - and reflecting on how West Princes Street Gardens have changed over the years.Read David’s Story
Reverend Peter Sutton describes St Cuthbert Parish Church's history and his own connection to West Princes Street GardensRead Reverend Sutton’s Story
Our Chairman, Norman Springford, talks about his memories of visiting the gardens as a young boy and his pride in leading their reimagination.Read Norman’s Story
Moira Hepburn (or Auntie Moira) recalls fond summer days playing the piano at the Ross Theatre for Children's Hour.Read Moira’s Story
David Allfrey, Producer and Chief Executive of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo talks about his enthusiasm for The Quaich Project and shares his favourite space within West Princes Street Gardens.Read David Allfrey’s Story
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