Royal Highland Show: 200 years of Edinburgh's landmark world class agricultural gathering

As it celebrates its 200th anniversary, it's hard to imagine the Royal Highland Show taking place anywhere other than Ingliston, yet the first, in 1822, was staged in the grounds of Queensberry House on the Canongate, now ​part of​ the Scottish Parliament site.

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That inaugural event attracted just 1000 attendees​,​ with takings ​​of £52​. Today​,​ the gathering, which returns in June having been on hiatus due to the pandemic for the last two years,​ regularly attracts up to 190,000 visitors.

The annual celebration of all things agricultural has certainly become a very different beast over its 200 year history, agrees Bill Gray, chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland.

Royal Highland ShowRoyal Highland Show
Royal Highland Show
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He ​explains​, “​The year before that first show​ took place​,​ ​members of the Highland Society of Edinburgh, as it was in those days, thought an ​agricultural or exhibitors show​ would be a good thing to do. That resulted in ​a​ show in Queensberry ​gardens​ with 67​ head​ of various livestock.

“When you look at what the Society was all about, the improvement and support of agriculture, starting an exhibitor show gave people the opportunity to display how good their livestock were, leading to potential breeding programmes and such like. The same reason holds for the people who show livestock today, to ​display ​excellence in their field.”

I​t was i​n 1960, on the 21 June, that Ingliston welcomed the Royal Highland Show for the first time. It has remained its home ever since, allowing the show to grow and evolve in ways the itinerant version never could - between 1823 and 1959, the Highland Show took place in a different town or city across Scotland each year​. ​

It was in 1948 while in Inverness that the event had the Royal title bestowed upon it by King George VI. In the years since, members of the royal family have been regular visitors. The Queen attended in 1960 for the official opening of the Ingliston site​ and returned in 1984 for its 25th anniversary. Her last visit was in 2009. Other royals welcomed over the years include the Queen Mother in 1954 and 1964​, ​Princess Anne in 2008 and 2015 and Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in 2006.

The Royal Highland Show at InglistonThe Royal Highland Show at Ingliston
The Royal Highland Show at Ingliston
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Royal visits aside, another recent highlight of the four-day event was the showground's landmark 50th anniversary in 2010, which also marked the 170th show staged.

Bill ​reflects that finding a permanent home on the outskirts of the Capital proved crucial to the ​continuing success of the event.

“Because the show had grown to such a scale, not just in size but in the number of people it was attracting, it meant doing it justice in different locations had become a real challenge. Finding a permanent home in 1960 was pretty crucial to allowing the show to grow and remain relevant. The location, next to the airport and city, made it the perfect.”

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Bill Gray, Chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of ScotlandBill Gray, Chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
Bill Gray, Chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland

One of the ​most popular ​sights at recent shows has been​ ​the appearance of ‘​Heavy Horse​s’, Clydesdales, Shires, Percherons and​, on occasion, ​Suffolk Punches​, however, the full range of livestock shown each year includes sheep, cattle, goats, ponies, donkeys, and poultry​. It’s not unusual for there to be in excess of ​6000 animals and fowl in attendance.

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“While the core of the show remains agriculture, rural pursuits and industry​, t​he benefit ​of the Royal Highland Show is that, because it has become such a well attended event from a public point of view,​ there is a fantastic opportunity for ​visitors from outwith the farming community​ to not just to marvel at what is there but to also learn a little bit about how things are done​. It’s ​an important aspect of the show.​”

Bill came to Midlothian 27 years ago as a farm manager, his day job, and he recalls, “My first memory of the show was the mid to late 90s. I knew of it but hadn't been up until then. I marvelled at the complexity of it and became involved quite quickly, stewarding before accepting a post on the board. As Chairman, I have the huge honour of being at the head of one of the principal agricultural organisations in the world.”

For the first time since 2001 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease caused the cancellation of the event, there was no show in 2020 or 2021, meaning that despite being in post for three years, the 2022 Royal Highland Show will be the first with Bill at the helm. He's looking forward to it being the highlight of his chairmanship to date.

The Edinburgh 'RHASS' show of 1899The Edinburgh 'RHASS' show of 1899
The Edinburgh 'RHASS' show of 1899

“I'm hoping the highlight will be on June 23 when we have a show,” he says​. ​

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“Just now​, the highlight​ ​has ​been ​ho​w we, ​as a Society​,​​ coped with Covid and the cancellation of ​two​ Royal Highland Shows​ and the success the live stream Royal Highland Showcase we put on last year​. T​hat was a hugely proud moment.​”

​Back on the ground at Ingliston this year, as well as the exhibition halls and livestock rings there will be a wide range of events with everything ​from sheep shearing to show jumping, driving to tug-of-wars and dog trials to falconry and farriery​. T​here are also two bandstands where, in the past, music has come from the likes of the Royal Marines, pipe and drum, school and rock bands.​

So what would the Chairman himself recommend if asked for 2022’s three must see events?

“You must not miss the animals,” he says, “If you are into food you should not miss the food hall, the countryside area would be another highlight, but there is so much, it's hard to pick just three.

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“The best advice I could give is ​to ​plan your day. Know where the things that interest you​ are​ because you could spend a long time wandering around​ looking for them.”

The Queen Mother visits the Royal Highland Show in 1977The Queen Mother visits the Royal Highland Show in 1977
The Queen Mother visits the Royal Highland Show in 1977

That said, he adds, “Around every corner and up every avenue there will be something to make you go, 'Wow! Look at that!'​​ It really is a fun day out for the family​ and ​I think ​those members of the Highland Society of Edinburgh who started it all would be pretty flabbergasted but absolutely delighted that the legacy they left has grown into what it is today.​”

The Royal Highland Show 2022 takes place June 23-26, tickets here

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Sheep shearing trials in 2018Sheep shearing trials in 2018
Sheep shearing trials in 2018
Heavy Horse Turnouts at the Royal Highland ShowHeavy Horse Turnouts at the Royal Highland Show
Heavy Horse Turnouts at the Royal Highland Show