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royal highland show

The Royal Highland Show

Edinburgh's great celebration of all things agricultural is a spectacle even city folks can enjoy.


To our left, compact, florid-faced men in prickly tweed bunnets take taciturn stock of the sales brochure for the massive harvester that towers in front of them. Up ahead, scarlet-coated people with hyphenated surnames and expressions of unaccustomed concentration jump horses over painted poles. To our right, a small riot of toddlers, herded by nervous grans, engulfs enclosures of lambs and tiny piglets, oblivious to the airborne wafts from charcoal grills that betoken the creatures' ultimate career prospects. Meanwhile, their moms are nearby, watching a model sashay down a catwalk in a flurry of pastel cashmere, and wondering whether they'll ever get that dress size back again.

No mistaking our surroundings. It is June, we are at the Ingliston Showground next to Edinburgh Airport, and this is the Royal Highland Show (RHS). Especially if it's pouring with rain.

There's no denying that we Scots do paradox rather well. The first thing to grasp about the Royal Highland Show is that it really has very little to do with the Highlands. It is Scotland's premier agricultural event. For sure, practitioners of the rural trades travel to it from the Highlands, just as they do from every other corner of the land, and just as they have since Queen Victoria was new to the throne -- this year's show is the 173rd. But the idea of an urban setting dates back to its earliest time: the first-ever show was in Edinburgh, and for many years it circulated around venues like Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Perth. Since 1960, it has had a permanent home at Ingliston. Indeed, its renown today is increasingly international. The star attraction for the 2013 Show (June 20-23) are those well-known rustic Highland folkies, the Michigan State University Alumni Band.

And yet the paradox within the name is oddly appropriate because the RHS sets out to do two entirely different, some might say contradictory, things, and even more improbably, succeeds pretty thoroughly in both of them. One is the traditional function of an agricultural show, a trade event at which folk from the rural industries can come together to showcase produce, exchange product intelligence, buy and sell goods, compete for modest prizes and network in convivial surroundings. But the RHS is also explicitly for us townies. It is a vehicle for reminding us that there is more to food than supermarket promotions, more to farming than mud and muck, and more to the Scottish rural economy than wind-swept sheep. It is the countryside talking to the city, and reminding us of our dependence upon it. What's more, on every possible measure, it is a message that the city enjoys hearing.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2013 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Jane Barlow