Thursday, 30 June 2011

Scotland's countryside comes to town - Royal Highland Show 2011

Personal reflections on the Scottish Royal Highland Show 2011

Last Friday (24th June), I spent almost 12 hours wandering around Scotland's Royal Highland Show at the Ingliston Showground west of Edinburgh, next to Edinburgh Airport. This is an annual four-day celebration of Scotland's rural and agricultural cultures, organised since 1822 by the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. According to Wikipedia, the event attracts over 1,000 exhibitors, 4,500 head of livestock, and an annual 200,000 visitors - making it Scotland's most popular summer event and the premier fixture in Scotland's farming calendar. It generates over £200 million in business. Exhibitors compete for the prestige of winning not only prize tickets, but also for prize money and trophies worth over £1 million. It is also the UK's largest agricultural event.

I love it.

Early morning entrants heading for the horse judging.
I love the spectacle, the vast area of marquees, the displays of agricultural equipment, the skills and expertise on display (dry stone walling, fly casting, dog handling displays, falconry, etc).

I love the opportunity to see so much livestock all in one place, including the rare breeds and old varieties.

I love the chance to meet so many colleagues from such a wide range or rural and environmental organisations all in one place. Many of them are working hard in engaging with the public and with rural and agricultural clients but it doesn't feel so much like work. In fact it feels like a bit of a carnival event. It is a great social event for many rural folk in Scotland, with many participants staying on or near the site for the week.

Last-minute attention to detail before the judging ring

But more than any of that, I love the sheer feeling of energy and enthusiasm that percolates the event. I often reflect on all the millions of individual actions that are required to bring together an event like the Royal Highland Show each year at the end of June for four (hopefully) glorious days. Not just by the organisers and the guys (pun intended) putting up the marquees, hammering in signs, designing and printing programmes, cutting the grass in the car parking fields, and so on. But all the work by all the individuals and families breeding their livestock, caring for their animals, preparing them for the show, transporting them and looking after them for the period of the show, then packing them up and taking them home, with or without the reward of a prize certificate. And all the judges, their preparation and homework, building on all their years of experience. And all the companies preparing their displays, building them up, printing their leaflets or packing their food or drink samples. Even all the efforts to move all those acres of pristine farm machinery in and then out again. And then all the individuals and families who decide to come for the day and all the activity and preparation which that involves.

One of my friend Elaine's four prize tickets for her Commercial Sheep competition entries -well done Elaine!
At the Show, all of that is combined together in a heady mix of (restrained rural) enthusiasm, judging rings full of hopeful owners and their washed, brushed, polished and sometimes powdered animal charges, increasingly noisy beer tents full of ruddy faced young and not-so-young men, and posh country women in expensive designer knitwear, long waxed stock coats or jodhpurs, hopeful retailers with their "special price for the show" market-stall banter. And troops of primary school children with their fretting watchful teachers, snaking hand-in-hand through the crowded avenues looking for some rural agency tent with lots of colouring-in opportunities to keep the wee darling busy and quiet for 15 minutes. Sometimes the sun shines and it is lovely. Sometimes it rains and it can be very muddy (think Glastonbury with sheep and cows). This year, the sun shone and it was lovely!

My favourite element of the Show is always the Heavy Horses, more on which later. Here is a selection of photos from the Show to give a flavour of my day.

And they were crossing - everywhere you looked...

Some of the most fun livestock to go looking for, surely!
And yes, it IS a Goat Coat! Either that or it's run off with the bathroom curtain...

Kids, eh? Always climbing over everything...

Rabbit or sheep - you decide!

Some of Elaine's prize-winning Commercial Sheep - that middle one is definitely pure Beltex. What do you think?
A big coo - definitely a very big coo! And a Highland coo at that.

Great to see people working hard to preserve and promote traditional and rare breeds.
Some Luing cattle...
A real mixed herd of Scottish breeds! May the best coo win...
A bonny, well-looked after Hampshire Down sheep from near Stirling (and a prize ticket for their efforts! Well done Jane and Roy)
Important work! Please support them!

Some of the fine Scottish produce on offer -in this case, smoked haddock ('smokies') produced by Spink's of Arbroath. The fish are being smoked over smouldering wood in the covered barrel (which is sunken into the ground) - these are unbelievably tasty...

Some of the rural crafts on display - some beautiful clarsachs (Scottish harps) built by Graham Muir of Ardival Harps from Strathpeffer in northern Scotland

The busy blacksmith's forge, where a competition to shoe all four hooves of a horse in an hour was well underway. The noise and smells were interesting!

Showjumping was one of the final events of the day in the main ring. I'm quite pleased with this shot from a camera phone!

HM The Queen's Highland cow and (above) her 4th place Prize Certificate

And so, on to the heavy horses, my favourite element of the Royal Highland Show. In 2010, the RHS managed to have representatives of all of Britain's heavy horses. This year, it was mostly Clydesdales, although there was a "four" of another breed I didn't recognise.

I think I fell in love with a horse.

This lovely beast was very quiet and appreciative of having her head rubbed. I watched an old man, walking around the heavy horse stalls on his own, stop and place his head against the side of her face and he just stood there for a minute. Maybe he was whispering, maybe not but it brought a lump to my throat and water to the eye. Maybe an old ploughman reliving past memories? Maybe someone who worked with horses in his early life before the tractor took over. I spent a few minutes rubbing her face and neck and talking quietly to her. It reminded me of standing next to the quiet but clearly latent power of an elephant which I've done a couple of times in Asia. For hundreds of years, heavy horses would easily have been the largest animals ever encountered by most people in Britain.

One of the joys of a show like this is the chance to see the enthusiasm and complete loving care and attention being lavished on these show horses by their owners, in preparation for showing. When I walked around the stalls, the place was buzzing with preparations to ensure that the horses were all in tip-top form for their moment in the ring later in the afternoon.

Whitening the feathers!

Waiting patiently for their turn...

Just look at this horse. What a beauty!

Nearly ready! gleaming chestnut with white feathery feet!
Exciting entry of the heavy horse fours and their wagons into the ring. The ground shook...

Beautifully presented animals!

Off goes another four, around the ring for the judges attention

And finally, here is a photo of maybe the largest horse you are likely to see - a 19-hand Clydesdale called Bud, owned by Hugh Ramsay of Millisle Clydesdales. One horse guy who knew about Bud reckoned he weighs a ton and a quarter. And so quiet and calm. The heavy horse hall is the perfect antidote to the noise and business of the show world outside...


Twelve hours at the Show and I didn't manage to see a half of what I wanted to! Next year!

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