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Scotland’s annual State Fair — a real treat

In an 1867 edition of the Scotsman Newspaper, an Edinburgh newspaper that still publishes a daily edition, there is an article titled “Our Visitors.”  It mentions the unusual number of people from the Scottish countryside that were visiting Edinburgh.  Their dress, manner, and demeanor, seemed a bit out of step with the more cosmopolitan Scottish Capital and the reporter went on to note that they were in town for the Royal Highland Agricultural Show.  The Show had been an annual event since 1822 and brought together, much like a state fair does in the United States, almost every facet of Scottish Agriculture.  

That was 145 years ago, and the Royal Highland Agricultural Show, with its only interruptions being for the two world wars, has been held ever since.  Scotland’s population is only 5 million people.  Virginia’s population by contrast is about 7.5 million.  But, what most people don’t realize is that Scotland has more countryside per person than any other nation in Europe.  This shows in the size and diversity of Scotland’s agricultural industry.  Combined with Scotland’s ancient and colorful history, it makes the annual show one of the most attended events in the United Kingdom.  This year’s show, which ended on Sunday, had over 185,000 visitors, from Britain, Europe, and the United States.  The Show in contradiction to its title isn’t held in the Highlands of Scotland.  Rather, this annual event takes place on the grounds of the sprawling Ingliston fairgrounds just outside the Scottish Capitol City of Edinburgh.  

The Highland Show is a reflection of the entire Scottish nation.  It’s cultural, there is music, Scottish dancing, and always, somewhere in the distance the sound of the pipers.  While an agricultural show it is also a feast of the first order, the show’s cavernous food hall features pies, meats, sausages, an amazingly wide variety of Scottish cheeses, and bread.  Does this still sound like just a Scottish version of a state fair?  Well, think again.  The Highland Fair also includes several Scottish whisky vendors, featuring at least a representation of the 136 varieties of single malt scotch, and yes, there is occasionally a chance for a little tasting too.  However, if in the true Scottish tradition, you fancy a pint, there are least three full service pubs in operation for the entire duration of the show.

And there is one thing to remember about the Highland Agricultural Show and Fair.  It’s huge.  The logistics alone, of the agricultural exhibitors, musicians, competitions, industry and commercial demonstrations, as well as the comings and goings of the dignitaries, which often include members of the Royal Family, are massive.  But the show, above all, is an agricultural display and competition.  There are nearly 1,000 horses, and over 4,500 head of livestock. There is judging for Scottish goats, cattle, and sheep.  There is also the Highland Cattle competition.  This unique cattle breed, with its long horns and shaggy coat, is an icon to the Scots, and is a featured competition.  Highland Cattle, while bred in every continent, including the United States, the breed began in Scotland.  Few breeds of cattle have done so well in the sparse highland grazing areas of Scotland as have the Highland Cattle.  Indeed, Highland Cattle are so revered that representations of this lovable looking creature, and as cattle go, they are amazingly friendly, are featured in various aspect of the interior design of Scotland’s Parliament.  

I have been to the show several times, and, at the risk of insulting my always gracious Scottish hosts, have taken to calling all of these shaggy creatures, “Hamish.”  I don’t know why, but it’s just a name that seems to fit.  I think I picked it up from a BBC children’s show from the 1970’s.  The show also hosts one of the largest equine competitions in Britain.  There is show jumping, dressage, carriage competitions, and an extensive pony competition.  However, one of the biggest treats is the large breed horse competitions.  It’s rare to see so many of these gentle giants – breeds originally pioneered in the United Kingdom – Clydesdales, draft horses of various types, and draft crosses, in one place, let alone in competition.  Usually, when we see them in America, they’re pulling a wagon, but in many competitions, like the one at the Highland Show, they’re being ridden, by experienced riders in difficult competitions.   

The show’s displays, vendors, and exhibitions, are an event unto themselves.  There is archery, yes, right out of Robin Hood, axe throwing competitions, wood carving competitions (the kind done with chain saws), fly fishing demonstrations (Scotland is famous for its fly fishing), crafts of all, art work of all kinds, fine jewelry, quilts, and clothing.  

Of course, the show, traditional, lively, and enchanting as it is, sits in the shadow of one of the world’s great cities, Edinburgh.  With Edinburgh Castle set majestically on top of an extinct volcano overlooking the old and the new towns, the Scottish Capitol is a wealth of adventure.  I lived there in the 1970’s, and whether it was the arts, architecture, theatre, dining, dancing, the universities, the world renowned museums, walking in the Pentland Hills, taking the nightly tours of Edinburgh’s ghostly past, or visiting its seemingly endless bistros, wine bars, and pubs, I can’t recall a moment, when I ever had a shortage of things to do.  Edinburgh has been called one of the world’s most beautiful cities, the “Athens of the North,” a wonderful collection of images, architecture, and remarkably friendly people.  Or, as the famous Scottish Poet, Robert Burns put it, “From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs.”

Of course, I’m home now, and in spite of a severe case of jet lag, was up early to feed the horses, and have to be back at work tomorrow.  Memories of the Highland Show are now, just that, memories.  But, the good news is that the show takes place every year about this time of year, and if you want to see a State Fair like no other (and, who i,, who no, not just because of the whiskey), than I recommend, the Highland Show.  

 

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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