A veteran of four decades of Royal Highland Shows, Fordyce Maxwell returns to see if this year's event remains true to its roots
EARLY morning is the best time at the Highland show – almost, but not quite, catching out the car parking staff; dodging the vans delivering rolls; falling behind directors of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland as they step out briskly in best suits, some tweed, some pinstripe; passing cleaners smoking a last cigarette before another day of dealing with the incompatible showground mix of livestock dung and flooring.
Even going through the turnstiles at 6.45am we were not first. Stockmen had been up for hours. In a vast shed they hustled about with feed and water, mucked out stalls, laid fresh straw, and began to brush, comb and wash their cattle, snip and trim hair and apply polish to hooves and horns. The only chat missing is: "Had your holidays yet?"
Making the cattle shed my first call might seem odd for someone who became disenchanted with pedigree breeding and animal beauty contests early in a journalistic career during which I eventually reported on 38 consecutive Highland shows for The Scotsman.
Spending my first five shows typing out 1,2,3 prize lists for everything from Dorset Down sheep to Scots Dumpy (male or female) poultry could eat into the soul.
But the main reason was that I couldn't see the point. Producing livestock should be about measurable commercial values, such as how much and what quality beef, lamb or pork these animals and their progeny could put on butchers' shelves or how much milk in pint bottles. Not about how good looking they are in the subjective view of one judge.
I still don't see the point.
More mellow now, I accept that for most of those showing livestock it is not only an extension of their daily business – Scotland's red meat industry last year was worth 745m – but a labour of love.
Coming out of retirement for one more visit to a show held since 1822, the main reason I turn first to cattle is that they are the fixed point in a changed, and changing, showbiz world even if they are probably half as big again as they were 40 years ago and dozens of overseas breeds now outnumber the natives.
Different breeds and their niceties are academic to the public but beauty contest livestock judging has not changed much in two centuries. At first glance, that might seem true of the show as a whole. The biggest outdoor event in Scotland, worth an estimated 250m to the national economy, according to the organisers, might attract an average attendance of more than 150,000 over four days, but has it moved with the times? Has it any relevance to farming today? Can it meet the requirements of farmers who want to see traditional livestock judging; farmers' wives on a day out who see Ingliston as a better bet to dress up and meet friends than Ascot; and a public expecting a good day out at 20 a head?
Allan Murray, a Borders farmer and president of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society, was too polite to laugh at the question. As we met by chance close to the giant Food Hall near avenues lined by supermarkets – Sainsbury, Asda, Somerfield, Lidl, Aldi, undreamed of trade stands a decade ago – he only raised an eyebrow and looked around.
"Food," he said. "We are making the vital link for farmers and the public between what farmers do and what the public eat. And we are emphasising the security and safety of home-produced food. There are more safeguards on our production than anywhere else. At the show we work with producers, processors and retailers to prove that. We're the focal point for farm to plate."
The show, and its organisers, will continue to move not only with the times, but to move. British Airports Authority will take over the existing showground by 2013 and the Highland show will cross the M8 to a custom-built 353m site at Norton Hall.
Murray has no qualms about that either. Until 1960 the Highland show moved annually round seven regions in Scotland, a massive logistical exercise of canvas erection too often prey to the weather, as at an Aberdeen show in the early 1950s. In monsoon conditions, as livestock and exhibitors squelched in ankle to knee-deep mud, show president Dr James Durno was given shelter by a phlegmatic stockman. As they watched rain lash down, the stockman removed his pipe and said: "Aye, doctor – that's a shooer 'll play hell wi' yer show." To reduce the chances of that, with permanent buildings and roads, the society bought the former golf course at Ingliston.
Jack Sleigh from Aberdeenshire, who attended his first Highland in 1936 – "I'm creaking a bit, but still going" – became a director in 1982 and is one of Murray's many predecessors as president, says the show will only grow in importance.
"The show has changed over the years, but we never lost touch with the business side of farming," he said. "We've always kept the balance right between farmers and the public as we've moved with the times. There's a lot here for the public, but it's also the biggest show of farm machinery in Britain."
True. Avenue after avenue of combines, tractors, forklifts, cultivators, sprayers and ploughs, and – crisis, what crisis? – hundreds of four-wheel drives and saloons including one with the tempting invitation: "Take one." Pity, it meant a copy of the leaflet on the bonnet.
It is impossible to say how many millions of pounds worth of machinery are there this year. But a large combine or sophisticated potato harvester can cost 250,000. A grain trailer, a high-sided metal box on wheels, "designed for the discerning and practical customer", is more than 15,000. There could well be more discerning customers at this show than for years because the price of almost every farm product has risen dramatically in the past year.
From a low base, the Scottish National Farmers' Union argues, costs such as fuel, fertiliser and sprays have shot up. But product prices have risen – grain from 80 a tonne before the 2007 harvest to 180 after it, cattle to 2.80 a live kilo, milk to more than 25p a litre compared with 17p.
The net result on the showground was that indefinable, but noticeable, thing, a buzz among optimistic farmers.
No surprise that almost two-thirds of the general public questioned at last year's show said their main interest was food and drink. This could now be known as the munching show, with everything available from a foot of bratwurst for 3.50, through a wide range of doughnuts and burgers and free samples offered by every supermarket, to the quality Food Hall.
Does the message get across, especially to thousands of visiting children linked to the work of the Royal Highland Educational Trust, that meat in all its forms is connected to the glossy, pampered cattle or sheep with wool trimmed to perfection? The organisers are certainly trying hard to ensure that it does.
As they are with much else that is happening in the countryside with displays of ferreting, fly fishing, forestry, drystane dyking, gundog training, sheep shearing and horse shoeing. Not forgetting almost 2,000 horses, much as I might like to.
As I left, John McTurk, a noted breeder of belted Galloway cattle from Port William, passed carrying bucket and brush. In the small hours I'd seen him at work with his cattle, still flushed with the success of a reserve championship on opening day.
I smiled with him.
But walking to my car I passed close to where a three-year-old boy died, playing, in a tragic accident involving a concrete bollard on Thursday. For one family at least, Scotland's great farming show, its noise, bustle, politics and fine cattle no longer mattered a damn.
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