The Royal Highland Show has always been synonymous with the best of Scottish agriculture, while also providing the perfect surroundings to do business and catch up with acquaintances old and new. But it is so, so much more to Scotland’s livestock enthusiasts than a day out.

For many, the four-day event which, for exhibitors can mean almost a week away at the show, with a good month's preparation before hand, provides the ideal opportunity to showcase the best of their breeding stock to fellow breeders and the general public. It's also an ideal chance to view a potential stock sire or even buy a few foundation females, having discussed the various pros and cons of an individual breed or concept over a drammie or three ...

Just as importantly, if not moreso in a year like this or following a particularly tough winter or spring, the Ingliston spectacular provides an excellent setting for farmers to 'get things off their chests'. It's that time when farmers can speak to like minded people of their weather, livestock, family, and even personal woes, which lets face it, are particularly important especially this year.

It’s also that time when many feel they can let their hair down. It’s the weekend, Christmas, holiday time all rolled in to one, and for many, it’s one great party from start to finish which is often so desperately needed when few are able to get away from the farm for any length of time.

Needless to say, this year’s event is going to be sorely missed. The last year there was no Royal Highland was 2001 as a result of foot-and-mouth and this year is so much worse. While 2001 was horrendous, farmers could at least meet up with one another, whereas this year, who knows when life as we used to know it will return to any sort of ‘normality.’

The Scottish Farmer went to find out what the absence of this year’s Royal Highland Show means to several of Scotland’s top show enthusiasts….

By Patsy Hunter

Dennis Gall, ‘semi-retired’ freelance stockman, Lockerbie

For Dennis Gall and his wife, Margaret, there is only one thing worse than a year without a Royal Highland Show and that’s a Highland Show with everyone enjoying the craic and them having to ‘bide at hame!’

No strangers to bringing out the champion winners in the Galloway, Limousin and Berrichon sheep sections for various breeders and indeed for their own Gall-way Galloway herd in years gone by, they have always enthused upon the quality of livestock on display and indeed the banter and social life that goes hand in hand with such prestigious events.

However, as the first ‘big’ show of the season, the pressure is on to make an impression with any livestock entry and Dennis is one who still feels that more than most – and that’s after bringing out no fewer than 11 different champions over the years.

“When the Highland is the first of the big ones, we’re all desperate keen to get as near the top as possible, so everyone is on the ball. Everyone wants to bring out a red ticket holder and the Highland Show is the first show where it really matters,” he said.

While all shows have their own ‘stand out’ features, he said there is nothing to beat the inter-breed teams of four at the Highland.

“You’ll not see better teams of quality beef cattle anywhere else in the country. They are always absolutely outstanding and a real spectacle at the show,” said Dennis, who is probably the only person to have brought out a team of four silver dun Galloways – all from Castlemilk Estates – in 1998.

With so many good memories, one of his best dates back to 1964 as a young teenager with his father, Hugh, showing Galloways. In those days, he was sent to sleep in the front or ‘dookit’ of Peter Copeland’s lorry, while the remainder of the crew enjoyed the party which more often than not went on into the small hours of the morning, over a ‘few drams’ with a background of mouth organ and accordion music.

Kenneth Sutherland and sons, Stephen and Kenneth, RHASS director and sheep exhibitors, Sibmister and Stainland Farms, Caithness

As a RHASS director for 40 years and an extremely enthusiastic showman way before that, Kenneth Sutherland has always been one of the show’s biggest fans – and the boys/men are certainly following in his footsteps.

Most years, Kenneth would have attended at least three show meetings before the actual event as a director, but since lambing and lockdown in March, the deputy chief sheep steward has very much been confined to barracks.

With a show career spanning more than 40 years, Kenneth first started showing Half-bred sheep with his father, Jack, many moons ago. Since then, he and the boys have never missed a ‘Heilan’, taking commercial sheep entries down every time

“It’s my holiday – I wouldn’t ever like to miss it,” said Kenneth. “It’s a great place to catch up with people from the previous year and you meet so many more year on year. I just enjoy meeting people, the craic and the job of sheep steward.”

As for the most memorable, well there have been a few ! But every year the team wins the commercial section is a stand out occasion, with one of the best being the year they bagged the tri-colour with a home-bred Texel cross ewe with twin-born Texel cross lambs at foot – all of which were by home-bred sires, of course.

Blair Duffton, commercial cattle and sheep exhibitor, Huntly

There can be few more enthusiastic showmen than Blair Duffton, who most years will exhibit at all the North-east shows and this year was also bound for Ayr, Balmoral, the Great Yorkshire and even the Royal Welsh – until lockdown.

With 33 beef calves purchased, to include some in partnership with Rebecca Stuart, and others with Gareth Small, in Northern Ireland, Blair was well ahead of the game for this year, with the Royal Highland a number one priority.

“There is so much enjoyment and satisfaction getting animals ready for shows and once you get to such events, there are so many great folks and characters to catch up with from previous years. I just love the shows – they are my life and they’re where a lot of business is done, but they are also my holidays.

“I don’t do fancy holidays, but I love going to look at cattle and sheep and meeting up with people I haven’t seen for years,” said Blair who last year won three first prizes down the commercial cattle lines and also went on to lift the champion bullock and reserve overall honours.

“The early shows before the Highland are good for breaking in cattle and after a week at the Highland we’re all fired up for the rest,” Blair added, pointing out that he hasn’t missed a full week at Ingliston, that he can remember.

Contrary to popular belief Blair – who is completely tee-total and admits to ‘having a b..... good time without drink,’ – is also keen on sheep and is part owner of Deborah Atkinson’s Tap o' Noth Blue Texel flock, from Insch, Aberdeenshire.

And, of course, he loves the chat and encouraging the young ones. “It’s just nae the same this year when you canna hae a cup of tea at the marts and ye hae tae sit twa metres apairt if yer buying cattle. There’s jist nae banter at a,” he said.

Wattie, Doreen and Aileen Ritchie, Limousin cattle and potential dog show exhibitors, Whitecairns

Show time is holiday time for most and the Highland Show is the biggest of them all for Wattie and Doreen Ritchie and their daughter, Aileen, who own the Ritchies Limousin herd based at Whitecairns, Aberdeenshire.

“It’s a time when you catch up with friends that you only see a handful of times a year and a time when father sends out for Old Vatted Demerara Rum supplies for a busy summer ahead,” laughed Aileen.

“We usually head down on the Tuesday morning which lets the cattle get settled in but also allows us that bit extra time for a few ‘beverages’.”

Everyone knows Wattie, as he is always at the ringside, alongside his trusted companions, Lucy and Bruiser the dogs, which must be some of the North-east and Highland Show’s biggest supporters. Sometimes, Wattie will be cheering but he’ll always be giving his opinion whether it be right or wrong!

Notably, last year was one of the family’s best at Ingliston as they won the Magras Trophy for the best Limousin cow with Ritchies Meryl, which proved a great reason to open the Ritchie kist as Meryl is the first daughter of the family’s foundation female, Emslies Ieryl, that stood reserve junior at the Highland back in 2014. Such was the party that more than 20 bottles of Edinburgh gin were consumed that day!

“This year will be strange as we’ll not only miss exhibiting cattle but also the social side of the shows. The restrictions close a lot of shop windows for selling cattle later on in the year too. You just never know who is looking when you show livestock,” Aileen added.

During the week of what would be this year’s Highland, the family is ‘looking forward' to silaging or maybe clipping ewes, but they will also be zooming their friends for a virtual dram! With shows being cancelled, one thing is for sure though, there will be plenty of OVD rum for everyone else this year!

Willie and Laura Thomson, North Country Cheviot exhibitors, Hownam Grange, Kelso

Few breeders have won the inter-breed sheep honours more in recent years than the Thomsons, from Hownam Grange, Kelso, but being the first show of the season, the preparations can feel a bit of a chore – albeit in a good way.

“The run up is frantic trying to get everything done, because the Highland is really a 10-day show with the weekend before and Monday/Tuesday pulling all you need together and sometimes the odd change of team,” said Willie.

Come the day before the show, the nerves start to build at Hownam Grange as it’s Willie’s last look around the stock until Monday post show.

“Everything has to be easy for whoever gets the job of looking round while we’re away as we all go – Me, Laura and the kids, Beth, Georgia and James. However, when we do finally set off, on the Wednesday morning, we’re in a more relaxed mood, which builds for the rest of Wednesday with a few drams that night and a catch up with people we haven’t seen for a while. Think I had too many in 2014 though, as I don’t remember showing in the morning and never had one all that day!

“Thursday is show day for us with both park and hill judged. This is it, the day we’ve been waiting for since we filled in the entry forms and for me, it’s the best day.”

Thursday night is the real party night for the team – win or lose. The whole show is about meeting people and having fun. Exhibiting is just an excuse to get there! The Saturday can be just as special too, especially if they get through to the inter-breed.

With so many good years at the Highland, Willie, his father Jimmy, and the rest of the family have had plenty to celebrate over the years at Ingliston both pre and post foot-and-mouth in 2001 when they lost their entire flock in a cull.

Inter-breed wins are the most memorable, with the first in 1998 being a huge achievement, and when they won all the female classes with home-bred entries. Success following the FMD cull has been particularly memorable for Willie, as he was given the chance to rebuild the sheep flock in 2002 while his parents, Jimmy and Peggy, moved to Kelsocleugh, and have done an amazing job there too.

Since then, Hownam has bagged the inter-breed honours three times – in 2007 with Magic; in 2008 with My Girl and in 2010 with Fantastic, which was also this year’s TSF virtual Champion of the Decade.

Another good year for the Thomsons came in 2016, when Molly won the hill Cheviot championship as a six-year-old and stood reserve inter-breed to the park champion from Humbleheugh.

The best party for them, however, was in 2018 after scooping a second double taking the park champion in the morning and hill title in the afternoon.

“Friends and fun are a must in any walk of life and I think in the farming and showing circle you will never be short of both if you are kind and gracious,” concluded Willie.

Robbie and Margo Scott, dairy exhibitors, Shacklehill, Ayrshire

There is no doubting the disappointment felt by the Scotts – Robbie and Margo and sons, Rory and Kyle – when they discovered this year’s Royal Highland Show was cancelled. The only good to come from the news is the fact they get to keep their prize haul from 2019 for another year!

“We’re secretly pleased there is no show as it’s the only way we get to keep the trophies for another year,” joked Robbie, who together with Margo, triumphed to win a first championship at Ingliston with the Jersey cow, Clifton Vanahlem Clover, which also went on to stand reserve inter-breed dairy.

Adding to the celebrations, young Rory won the dairy showmanship and stood third in the inter-breed young handlers exhibiting the yearling Holstein heifer, Nethervalley Kingpin Sara, while his younger brother Kyle lifted the inter-breed dairy calf trophy with a home-bred red and white heifer.

“The Highland is one of our main holidays of the year and we wouldn’t miss it, especially the Friday. The boys just love it and already have their calves ready in the hope there will be calf shows in the backend and they’ll maybe be able to qualify for the National All Britain Calf Show, in October.”

In saying that, both Robbie and Margo – who is an agricultural lawyer – cannot believe the extra work that can be achieved when there are no shows to attend, and when Margo can work from home.

“It is amazing what we’ve been able to do since lockdown – we’ve converted one of the sheds next to the house into an office for Margo which is great. Only problem is, she has now discovered that I not only have a nap after lunch, but also one after breakfast!” Robbie joked.

Jenna Ballantyne, Beltex and Texel sheep exhibitor, Lanarkshire

The Highland Show is the ideal opportunity for many to catch up with like minded people and take a well-earned break from the farm, but it’s by no means restful, with some in need of days if not a full week to recover.

For Jenna Ballantyne, pedigree sheep assistant and sales clerk at Lawrie and Symington, who also exhibits both Beltex and Texels from the family farm at East Cauldcoats, Strathaven, such is the recovery time, that she often has to wear sunglasses at Lanark Market, on the Monday, after the show!

“We always celebrate Father’s Day with our first flitting through to the Highland Show on the Sunday before the show to set up the sheep pens and get the caravan ready before taking the sheep on the Tuesday or Wednesday. It’s a great week.

"The Highland is just the best place to catch up with friends and potential customers, but it takes a full week to recover. The worst thing about it is the last day, the Sunday and having to say goodbye to everyone,” said Jenna.

In saying that, our Jenna who has been suffering from the Highland Show blues all year, has the week of what would have been this year’s Ingliston event, booked as annual leave in the family caravan as normal, and she fully intends having her own zoom show kist party albeit from the farm. Get set to party... !

Tracey and Davie Nicol, Charolais cattle exhibitors, Balthayock, Perth

There is no doubt the loss of agricultural shows is a huge miss to everyone in farming, but the cancellation of the Royal Highland has been a particular loss for Tracey Gunn, who has only missed one Highland Show in her lifetime due to a family wedding, with husband, Davie Nicoll, much the same.

Last year, the couple – who manage Major David Walter’s Balthayock Charolais herd, at Perth – enjoyed their best year, having won the supreme beef honours to lead the cattle parade at Ingliston with Balthayock Nessie, a 2 1/2-year-old in-calf heifer. Adding to the celebrations was the fact that the herd was enjoying its 50th anniversary.

“We’ll never forget last year – leading the overall beef champion through that tunnel at Ingliston in the grand parade is something on every stockperson’s bucket list,” said Tracey, adding that 2019 was also the first year the herd had won the beef inter-breed.

“There are so many friendships made at the Highland Show and for all you only see them once a year at the show, you catch up with them again at the next show as if it was only yesterday. There is nothing to beat the atmosphere and the camaraderie and it’s fantastic for getting the next generation involved.”

While last year and 2015 – when the couple brought out another Charolais champion for the Major which went on to stand reserve overall in the inter-breed – were two cracking years, Tracey always reckons 2005 was a vintage year for her.

“That was the year there were five of us – Hazel Fotheringham, Joanna McCallum, Leona Coghill, Ali Murray and myself – in a caravan or palace as we called it. Only problem was, it must have been the worst caravan out as not only did it leak, it was also tiny. It was more like a hen house than a caravan!”

This year’s Highland Show week is needless to say going to be a real lacklustre affair, but all going well, the duo are hoping to break a few bulls, but also break open a couple of bottles and have their own Highland Show kist party.

Alister and Colin Laird, dairy cattle exhibitors, Blyth Bridge, West Linton

Most showmen and women concentrate on one breed, but not regular Holstein winners, Alister and Colin Laird, who now run 460 Holsteins in their Blythbridge herd from West Linton.

With no fewer than nine black and white championships – six of which went on to lift the supreme dairy title to include 2018 and 2019 with the same cow, Blythbridge Jessy D2 – under their belt, they have also been making their presence felt in the Jersey lines after Colin married Izzy Wright in 2016. Since then, they have also landed the Jersey tricolour in 2018 with Fourcross Anthony Carozza.

And, without this year’s Ingliston event, the family is at a loss as to what comes next.

“It just doesn’t seem right not to be looking at cows to clip for the Highland Show at this time of year, although we are pretending to a sort when we have the classifier coming this week,” said Colin.

“The Highland Show is always a big part of our year. We’d go up on the Sunday to get the stalls ready, rough clip the cattle on the Monday and take the cattle up after lunch on the Tuesday. It’s our one holiday of the year and one we wouldn’t want to miss, and especially the Friday at the show for the dairy judging.

“What I won’t miss is the Friday morning and the pre-show nerves and the hangover,” laughed Colin.

John and Heather Barclay, Beltex sheep exhibitors, Mid Brockloch, Maybole

If there was ever any doubt about the future of the Royal Highland Show, you just have to take one look at the Barclay boys from Mid Brockloch, to know the Ingliston event is in safe hands.

With the genetics behind John (Beachy) Barclay and Heather (Gilmour) Barclay, their three boys, twins Cameron, Finlay (9) and Archie (5) have not only inherited the bug for the show ring, but also the party enthusiasm – that side from Beachy of course.

None of them have missed a show, with the Royal Highland being the highlight of their calendar year, and their annual holiday.

"John likes the Wednesday most of all when we open the kist at 12.05pm, whereas the boys and I like the Friday and showing our Beltex best," said Heather adding that the boys enjoy the sheep so much that they also take entries from their own flock – Twins plus One.

"We just love the Highland Show and would do anything to get to there. It is our shop window and a huge honour to get a red ticket when the quality of sheep on show is so high, but it is also a great social occasion and the chance to catch up with friends and fellow breeders. We just love the craic from start to finish with the Sunday being the family day when we eventually get to see a bit of the show."

With so many good memories, one of the best was in 2018, when there were busloads of Irish and Yorkshire Beltex breeders in attendance for the judging and of course the kist parties. Such was the Barclay's open house kist party and their overwhelming generosity, that the boys, who have been barmen in recent years, came home with more than £100 of tips !

Last year was a cracker too, with one of the Barclay's kist parties starting after the judging on the Friday evening, which after being rekindled at 10am on the Saturday, kept going until the early hours of the Sunday morning! It was an extremely long Sunday for Andrew Shaky Morton; Graeme Burke; Andrew Baillie and the rest of the crew...

Pamela Nicol and father Davie, Blackface sheep and Beef Shorthorn exhibitors, Doldy, Glenisla

Everyone loves the Royal Highland Show, and Pamela Nicol comes close to being its No 1 fan when it is the highlight of her year.

While Pamela has never missed an Ingliston event, father Davie has been only been absent from one, when he went on holiday to Canada. He has nevertheless had a fair crack at the Highland silverware having lifted the Blackface championship in 1969, 1981 and 1982 with Perth-type sheep. He's also one of the few to have brought out a Blackface winner that went on to be crowned supreme sheep while also taking the coveted Queen's Cup in the process. That was in 1980 with a five-shear Craigneich ram bred by Tom Paterson – the oldest ram of any breed believed to have won the trophy.

While the duo remain avid fans of the Blackface breed, they no longer exhibit, with Pamela now taking a few Beef Shorthorn cattle instead.

"I just love the Highland Show and start preparing cattle from March onwards and as soon as it gets to June, I'm looking to get the caravan ready. I look to get down to the show on the Monday, bring the cattle down on the Tuesday with the best night of the week being the Wednesday, although you have to be careful, when we're showing Shorthorns the next day. One year I had to go cap in hand to Kate Stephen for another wristband to get into the show as I'd dropped mine down the toilet the night before !"

Other highlights for Pamela include the Shorthorn and Blackie parties on the Thursday night, with the former having another kick at the ball on the Saturday night.

"There's always a great atmosphere at the Highland Show. Everyone is relaxed and it's great to catch up with friends old and new," added Pamela.

Hughie and Jan Mackenzie, North Country Cheviot exhibitors, Sutherland

Most of us can travel through to the Royal Highland Show within three or four hours max, but it's a 13hour round trip for North Country Cheviot breeders, Hughie and Jan Mackenzie, who would never miss a show if they could help it.

Most years, they send 10-12 hill-type sheep on Alan MacKay's lorry which leaves at 5am on the Tuesday morning, to get the pens and the sheep prepared that night and the following day.

It's the Wednesday that's the best day for this couple who in the past have won three breed championships for Clebrig to include the inter-breed pairs with a Clebrig ewe and an old tup from their own Langdale flock. That was in 2003 and the only time the hill-type Cheviots have won the pairs.

"That was our best year and we were all set for another party, but with the competition on the Sunday, everyone was heading home so it was a real anti-climax," said Jan.

Since then, Hughie has also bagged two reserve breed titles since he moved to Badanloch, with entries that often going on to dominate the north show circuit.

"It's a completely different ball game getting sheep ready for the Highland Show up here. We have to be that bit better to them when we're so much further north, so we often have them looked out the year before, so this year's cancellation is a real disappointment and we haven't looked out anything for next year.

"We're going to miss so many people from the show this year. There have been so many good parties, we can't remember them all and so many good stories that are unrepeatable," added Jan.

Scott Brown, commentator, Gorebridge

The Royal Highland Show is also renowned for it's superior commentators, but while the thought of doing such a thing would be a nightmare to many, it's one which Suffolk sheep breeder and former rugby supremo, Scott Brown relishes.

As one of the commentary team down the beef lines on the Thursday and occasionally amongst the sheep, he loves the excitement, anticipation and drama unfold in front of him: Who is the judge going to pull up, put down and of course the party down the Suffolk lines once show director Andrew Hornall has of course given him the all clear.

He also loves the Friday, taking his wife Jane, mother Frances and stepfather David Henderson to the show and for the directors lunch and of course the Saturday for the inter-breed sheep.

"It's the one show I don't like to miss as everyone is in such good form and you get a chance to catch up with the people you haven't seen since the previous Highland Show," said Scott, territory manager for Murray Farmcare who this year intends having a zoom Commercial Suffolk Sheep kist party promoting not only the breed, grassland management but also next year's bigger and better Royal Highland Show!