Time for Royal Highland Society to show and tell - Andrew Arbuckle

Earlier this month, I Zoomed in to a press conference organised by the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society. With fellow members of the press, I was informed that the 2021 edition of the Highland Show would not be held.

Happier times in the cattle shed at the Highland Show 2017
Happier times in the cattle shed at the Highland Show 2017

That was not surprising news as the governments both North and South of the Border are intent on keeping a tighter control over Covid than they did following the first lockdown and major events that have the capacity to attract loads of potentially virus spreading visitors are not being allowed to take place.

The Press were then told the Society were considering holding a ‘Showcase’ event whereby exhibitors could bring their livestock along to be judged. There would be no visitors at this proposed event, and, in fact, there was mighty little information about it at all.

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The Press were given lots of superlatives that aimed to justify the Showcase. We were reminded that Scottish livestock were the best in the world and livestock owners were desperate to get back into the show rings with their prize-winning animals.

Happier times in the cattle shed at the 2017 Highland Show

Just as we journalists would want to check the pedigree of a prize animal at the show, we asked a few questions about the background for the showcase. For example, how it would operate, would cups be awarded and what did the finances for it look like? This last query being significant considering the finances of the Society.

In response, another slew of sweet intentions filled my small tape recorder but, although I played it back several times, no financial figures emerged. There was a good reason for this silence as no sums of money were mentioned. Neither were there many answers to how this event would run.

Instead, a feeling grew in the zoom meeting that there were non-believers in the Press who questioned the Society’s fine intentions in proposing this shadow event.

Perhaps the Society believes it is the Press’s role to carry the good news from this venerable institution and not worry our little heads about money. It seemed we could be trusted as messengers of glad tidings but distrusted when it came to the finances of the Society.

This is worrying. Rather than keeping their cards close to their chests, would it not be better to be totally open with the scale of the problem they, as the Society, faces as a result of the pandemic?

The worrying and yet unreported feature is what this event could do to the finances of the two hundred plus year old organisation.

The veil of partial secrecy also hangs over other parts of the Society. Former long service employees have been gagged through Non Disclosure Agreements. This gives the impression, possibly wrongly, that the Society has something to hide.

Perhaps it is this reluctance to be completely open about the financial hurdles the Society faces has led to the less than overwhelming response for donations from the membership. The target set in September last year was £2 million but, so far, despite agriculture going through one of its more profitable periods, members have only come up with a fraction of that sum. There seems to be a wide divide between the fine words describing the tremendous support from the members and the reality of the situation.

In the last full set of published accounts to end November 2019, the auditors expressed concern over the viability of the Society as a going concern. That followed a year where there was a show.

This was a staggering qualification for one of the main events in the Scottish calendar and it must have given the show organisers a severe jolt. The figures to November 2020 are not yet to hand but last year because of the pandemic, there was no Highland show, and this could cut up to £5 million from the income of the Society.

Perhaps it is not the best time to have a speculative ill thought out Showcase event which could cost up to £400,000; a figure supplied to me by several insiders.

It is deeply unfortunate for the Society that their period of investment in the Ingliston showground has coincided with a shutdown leaving them far more exposed than they would have wished.

The Society’s directors and staff are good well-intentioned people but they need to be far more open to the financial challenges they face in order to get widespread support. Perhaps their Board meeting later this week will see a change of heart.