Wht the Highland Show must not go on in this format - Andrew Arbuckle

Top of the pile of matters requiring attention this week is the continuing saga of the administration of the Highland Society. Last week, I called into question the wisdom of the Society Directors trying to run a shadow event with Covid-19 restrictions putting the kibosh on the traditional, much loved, well supported, part of this country’s heritage, etc, etc called the Highland Show.

The shadow event being planned centred on showing the best of Scottish livestock despite this being a potential loss-making event. Remember that the Society’s auditors had qualified the last set of accounts, thus putting an unpublished, but believed to be up to half a million pounds, at risk.

At this point, I will pause to explain that a comment piece is not written to garner praise or support. Its purpose is to stimulate thought and, where necessary, to raise question marks.

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However, I have to report that my words last week brought support from a range of people across the country. In fact, the only negative to my conclusion that the Show directors were a touch out of touch came from people who said my comments should have been much spikier. I gathered, though it is not my intention, they wanted the show directors to get something spiky in soft parts of their anatomy.

Long-term livestock exhibitors said they would have preferred writing off any livestock showing at this year’s Highland. The plan to bring cattle and other livestock along to be judged on a one-day and then carted off home did not appeal to many noted breeders.

Added to this is a reluctance to transport breed winners back to Ingliston a week or two later for an interbreed competition. That plan may sound all right on paper but not in practice for anyone committed preventing the spread of Covid.

And that is why a majority of dairy exhibitors, for example returned a survey from the Society saying “rule us out”. Beef cattle exhibitors are believed to have been split 50/50 on the same survey on whether they would attend. A lot of the top beef herds have already made it clear they will give 2021 a miss.

It should also be pointed out that the “there and back” in one day decision, effectively rules out many exhibitors outwith the Central Belt of Scotland.

If the Showcase event does go ahead, I wonder how will the winners celebrate? “We won in ’21 when the competition was thin on the ground” is not a strong endorsement of the quality of the winners.

My worries about the potential of the Showcase to lose an already cash-strapped Society lots of money may be calmed a little with a whisper that the Society may have a money fairy who will wave her wand and say to the directors, “Dinna fash yerselves. I will underwrite it. It will be a good diversion from the challenges I face here in Holyrood.”

That may happen but it does not make the Showcase event right for a number of reasons including should it be a top priority under the circumstances?

I noticed on social media a far more innovative idea from John Fyall, a land agent bristling with ideas. He refers to the Society’s original mission statement calling for the regeneration of rural Scotland not just through showing livestock but by looking positively at all aspects of Scottish countryside.

Pointedly, he quotes the Society’s own aims: “It is for everyone who supports the very best standards in agriculture, forestry and stewardship of the countryside, which are such an essential part of our heritage – and our future."

To fulfil that lofty aim, he suggests the Society should park, for this year only, the plan for a livestock show and suggests in its place a number of smaller events held over a week, highlighting aspects of rural life such as forestry, sheep farming and arable farming.

This diverse approach to showcasing Scotland’s countryside and its related industries would tap into the public interest in the rural scene which has been triggered by Covid-19 restrictions. If foreign travel is being actively discouraged in 2021 then the Highland Society should be able to do better than holding a livestock event which is closed to the public.

Fyall’s suggestions seem sensible and I can only add if the Society persists with its loss-making Showcase venture, then the epithet “You are going down the wrong drill” must apply