How Royal Highland Show has grown since 1822

a brother and sister pose with their Hereford cow in the livestock judging ring at the Royal Highland Show in 2011. Picture: Jane Barlow

a brother and sister pose with their Hereford cow in the livestock judging ring at the Royal Highland Show in 2011. Picture: Jane Barlow

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THEY came in their masses, eager to see the very best of Scottish livestock.

It was 1822 and the first “Highland Show”, held in the grounds of Queensberry House in Canongate and featuring around 75 prime and very plump cattle, was a roaring success, even if some felt just a little miffed at having to cough up the one shilling entrance fee.

From small beginnings grew the nation’s biggest, liveliest and most diverse agricultural show – an extravaganza of livestock, food, drink, farming life and entertainment, which over the next four days will turn a corner of the city’s suburbs into a thriving slice of country life.

The 174th Royal Highland Show starts today, showcasing all things rural, from the 7000 animals that will be brushed, washed and preened for their moment in the spotlight, to the mouthwatering food they help produce, the impressive lumbering farm machinery to the elegant show-jumping.

Of course, unlike the visitors to the 19th century affair who had to make do with some cattle, eight sheep and two pigs to look at, today’s crowds are treated to a diverse range of mouthwatering attractions, displays of skill and technology, fun events, hands-on activities and shopping to keep even the biggest urbanite entertained.

And who knows what genteel Edinburgh society of days of yore would have made of the world’s biggest haggis – 7ft long, 3ft wide, 6ft in circumference – which one exhibitor is planning to unveil at the Show. Or the shopping arena, where their shilling could be spent on anything from a swimming pool to waterproofs and welly boots.

Not that the organisers hope they’ll need those this time around. For after a washout in 2012 when the event was thrown into chaos by torrential rain, £400,000 has been spent upgrading the car parks, show rings and walkways in a bid to ensure neither man nor beast ends up stuck in the mud.

Around 175,000 visitors are expected to make their way to the Royal Highland Showground at Ingliston over the coming days, where the 40 hectare arena has been transformed into individual zones to help spectators and exhibitors find their way around.

This year’s Show embraces the Homecoming Scotland 2014 theme with a series of events themed around Scots diaspora. Special emphasis is also being placed on highlighting the quality of Scottish produce and the route from farm to kitchen.

Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead says: “The Royal Highland Show is a wonderful opportunity for our farmers, crofters and land managers to showcase what rural Scotland is all about and promote its importance to the country as a whole.

“Our rural communities create and grow the excellent raw materials produced for our magnificent food and drink, whether it be the finest whiskies, delicious Scotch Beef or our fabulous seafood.

“In this year of Homecoming, when Scotland welcomes visitors from around the world, the Royal Highland Show is one of over 800 events celebrating the very best of Scotland’s food and drink, our assets as a country of natural beauty as well as our rich creativity and cultural and ancestral heritage.”

Indeed among the highlights is the Food Hall which according to surveys is the “must-do” destination for 90 per cent of Show visitors. This year there are over 100 producers and suppliers from across Scotland, from household names like Walkers Shortbread and Mackies of Scotland, to smaller producers, showcasing their wares. Meanwhile Edinburgh chefs Neil Forbes, Paul Wedgwood and David Haetzman will demonstrate their skills in the Cookery Theatre.

Show manager David Jackson believes the Food Hall alone is worth the entry ticket: “Food and drink production is growing in importance year-on-year for Scotland and it is encouraging that we have more Scottish producers than ever before,” he says. “As an event highlighting the whole chain from farm to retail counter, the Royal Highland is a unique food festival and an essential shop window for our great Scottish produce.”

While the stars of the show are the thousands of cattle, sheep, goats, horses and feathery friends looking their very best, other creatures will keep visitors entertained at the Countryside Area, among them performing “stunt” ducks and racing terriers. Some 3000 horses and ponies will be involved in the largest equestrian show in Scotland, with 2200 riders competing for £50,000 in prize money.

The Show’s Shopping Arcade and Outdoor Living Area, meanwhile, is stocked with everything from garden plants to Swedish barbecue huts. And for those who prefer not to rough it too much, the Lifestyle Village is the place to go for that dream swimming pool, high tech gadget or spa bath.

More than 30,000 children are expected to visit over the four days of the Show and a series of free interactive activities are planned for the Children’s Discovery Centre. There they can try baking and find out how to make healthy meals using meat at the Scotch Beef Cookery Theatre and visit the Dairy Parlour where they can try their hand at milking Mabel, the fibreglass cow, while fussy fish eaters could be converted by a visit to Seafood Scotland’s ‘incredible edibles’ workshops where they can learn how to make their own fish dishes.

One of the biggest attractions is likely to be the Countryside Area, with its pretty loch and stunning landscape bringing together lifestyle activities, entertainment and handicrafts inspired by Scotland’s natural resources – even a medieval Scottish village recreated by the Clanranald Trust for Scotland.

According to Mr Jackson: “The Countryside area gives the Show the opportunity to showcase the many aspects of rural life both old and new and to entertain people with displays of working dogs and birds of prey, re-enactments of clan life in years gone by and watch skilled workers spinning, building dry stane dykes and making bagpipes; there’s even an archaeological dig you can take part in.”

• Roads around the Royal Highland Showground will be busy and anyone travelling to Edinburgh Airport over the duration of the event is being warned to leave extra time for their journey. Keep up to date by following the Royal Highland Show on twitter @ScotlandRHShow, the #RHStravel feed or on Facebook. Gate tickets cost £25 (£20 concession). Children go free. Parking costs £8 a day.