Gates open on 177th Royal Highland Show

The Royal Highland Show is the climax of the year for many rural businesses.

A view of the 1966 Royal Highland Show showing the Scottish team of young farmers with "The Scotsman" trophy
A view of the 1966 Royal Highland Show showing the Scottish team of young farmers with "The Scotsman" trophy

For four days each June, all roads lead to Ingliston on the outskirts of Edinburgh as almost 200,000 visitors, 1,000 trade exhibitors and more than 6,500 animals flock to the Royal Highland Show. Now in its 177th year, it is the main event in Scotland’s farming calendar.

The Royal Highland Show has expanded exponentially since the very first event in 1822 and over the years it has branched out into forestry, food and drink and country clothing.

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Take a walk down the 13th Avenue Arcade and you’ll find artists, fashion retailers, garden accessories and homewares. There are coffee roasters, cheese makers, artisan bakers and gin distillers.

Judging goats at the Royal Highland Show in 1955.

But at the heart of it all is agriculture – the sheep, cattle, poultry, rare breeds and heavy horses. For the farmers and agricultural exhibitors who attend, many view the Royal Highland Show as a place to do business, explore the latest processes and technologies, catch up with old friends and make new ones.

In its history, only war and the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth has prompted the organisers – the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS) of which the Queen is patron – to cancel the event.

“It was a very small show in the early years,” says RHASS chairman Keith Brooke, who is currently the longest serving director on the board, having joined in 1986.

“The first show was held on the site of the present Scottish parliament. The society was founded in 1784 and up until 1959 the show moved round Scotland to eight different areas, which were responsible for manning the show.”

Judging goats at the Royal Highland Show in 1955.

When the cost of rotating the event became prohibitive, the decision was made in 1958 to buy the Ingliston estate as a permanent home for the Royal Highland Show.

With over half of Scotland’s population living within an hour and a half’s travel time of the site, it made for the ideal showground.

Since then it has continued to grow in both size and reputation.

“The first few years we were there, there were no permanent roadways and there were no real permanent buildings in place,” remembers Brooke, who first visited the show as a child while at school in Edinburgh.

“Over that time, we have seen a lot of development on the site which includes the two large exhibition halls, which are both used during the show and let out for other events throughout the year.

“It has just gradually evolved over a number of years. There’s now a lifestyle area, forestry arena, countryside area, renewables area and then, of course, the very successful Scotland’s Larder Live in the Highland Hall, which embraces all kinds of food production.

“The 13th Avenue is a shopping arcade and then the core events are the machinery, trade stands and livestock exhibits.”

Brooke, who is a working farmer, is the right person to ask about the show’s history. He’s hardly missed one since it moved to Ingliston in 1960.

“We bought our first caravan in 1980 and since then we have been to the show in the caravan every year.”

Even now in his position as chairman, Brooke will be joining the exhibitors at the caravan site at Ingliston; it’s a chance to catch up with old acquaintances, he explains.

Aside from keeping abreast of the latest in machinery, feed and farming equipment, there’s a social aspect which keeps people coming back to the show year after year.

“The Royal Highland Show has been transformed into a meeting place for livestock breeders,” says Brooke, who speaks from experience.

When he’s not handling RHASS business, Brooke farms sheep and cattle – including a small herd of Charolais cattle – at Carscreug in Wigtownshire.

“For many of them, it’s their first time away from home after the winter,” he explains.

“It’s not only about coming to the show to see the stock but it’s about the friendship that’s there.

“There are several people who have met at the show and who only ever see each other at the show.

“There are a lot of people who actually make the Royal Highland Show their annual holiday.”

To some extent though, it will always be a working holiday for the farmers who attend.

There are prizes to be won and when it comes to taking a champion to market, having a rosette from the show will push up its value.

“There are no restrictions on the quality of the animals coming to the show but the breeders are well aware of the standard that is sought after,” says Brooke. The Royal Highland Show has had opportunity to enhance further its top-class reputation since the demise of the Royal Show, which was held annually in Warwickshire until 2009.

It’s no longer just Scottish farmers who travel to exhibit their livestock and talk business with the various dealers and manufacturers who attend.

Brooke says the show now attracts exhibitors from Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire, further growing the profile of the historic event.

Last year, 187,000 people passed through the gates, which is a far cry from the crowd that would have gathered in 1822 to eye up the “two beautiful pigs” which The Scotsman reported were in attendance at the very first Highland Show in the Canongate in Edinburgh.

The Royal title was bestowed on the show by King George VI in 1948.

Over the years, the addition of stalls, competitive pole climbing and live cookery demonstrations has captured the attention of visitors from Scotland’s cities too. Many visitors to the show today have little or no connection to Scotland’s agricultural circuit but know they will still find something to interest them at Ingliston.

“A lot of the exhibitors in the food hall and the lifestyle area and so on come because they generate good business at the event,” says Brooke.

“It means there is a lot to attract visitors who go to the show knowing that it’s not just livestock and machinery.

“We try to make sure that the show is represented by something like 65 per cent agricultural trade stands and 35 per cent other stands which sell things like art, household furniture, clothes, boots and shoes. There is something for everyone.”

Brooke adds: “One of the biggest growth areas in recent years has been the equine sections. There are a greater number of people who have horses and they like to be able to say that they have competed at the Royal Highland Show.”

Where some of the major manufacturers of agricultural machinery have stepped back from other rural events, the reputation of the Royal Highland Show means they continue to attend in a bid to drum up business.

“We have a very loyal base of dealers who come to the show,” says Brooke. “A lot of business is done there over the four-day period.

“The dealers and manufacturers see it as an investment because more often than not they will come away with a large number of inquiries to follow up throughout the rest of the year.”

The third facet, in addition to social and commercial, is the educational value of the show.

Since the Royal Highland Education Trust (RHET) was set up in 1999, it has been bringing the show to life for thousands of school children annually.

“Over the period of the show over 150 schools come to the Discovery Centre which is the base for the RHET during the show,” explains Brooke.

“The schools literally have to book a slot because it’s so popular.”

While the basics have stayed the same throughout the show’s 177 years, regular improvements are made to enhance the visitor, exhibitor and member experience.

Over the past 12 months, the RHASS has invested heavily in replacing the utilities provision and while the development will probably go unnoticed by most of those who pass through the gates, it has certainly made it a safer and better equipped site.

RHASS members will notice the absence of the MacRobert Pavilion, which has been replaced by a high-class marquee in the same position until a new permanent building is constructed.

“The RHASS has continued to develop and keep apace with modern developments in farming,” says Brooke.

“We are fortunate that our forbears have built a solid foundation for the show to go from strength to strength.

“The bottom line is that there is something to attract everybody to Ingliston.

“Given a good spell of weather, we would hope that we will be able to continue in that vein.”

Regional focus

Until 1960, the Royal Highland Show toured Scotland and was held in a different location each summer.

The cost of keeping the show on the road led to the decision by the Royal Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS) to buy the Ingliston estate near Edinburgh as a permanent showground in the late 1950s.

Today, the tradition continues with an area of the show dedicated to one of the eight former host regions each year.

This year, it’s the turn of the Aberdeenshire to showcase its food and tourism offerings in the “Aberdeenshire Village”. A pop-up farm shop will include food and drink from more than 30 businesses in the area from Cullen skink to butteries, beef and shortbread.

Chefs from Aberdeenshire’s caterers and hotels will demonstrate their recipes and techniques, and visitors are encouraged to have a go at putting to win a golfing prize.

Art and craft is not forgotten with North East Open Studios forming a collective to sell a range of pictures, paintings and other creations.

Show statistics

Figures for the 2016 Royal Highland Show include:

More than 187,000 visitors.

7,000 of the UK’s finest livestock competed for £225,000 of prize money and 280 trophies worth around 
£2 million.

Over £8m is estimated to have been spent on shopping.

The show dance attracted 6,000 revellers over the four days of the show.

120 food and drink exhibitors at Scotland’s Larder Live.

In 2015, the Royal Highland Show contributed £46.2m to the Scottish economy.

This article appears in the SUMMER 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.