IT TOOK a monumental effort, and a considerable leap of faith into the unknown, but the Royal Highland Showcase will be remembered as both a resounding success and as the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland's first bold step into a whole new world of digital opportunity.

Make no mistake, all the society's efforts are now bent to the business of staging a a full scale Royal Highland Show in 2022, with its usual heaving live audience, packed ringsides, bustling bars and throbbing trade areas – but the necessity of holding 2021's event behind closed doors has equipped organisers with a whole new set of skills, and given them a taste of the global audience that could now become a permanent addition to the in-person crowds at Ingliston.

The statistics speak for themselves. The seven days of live-streamed livestock judging, forestry, equestrian, sheep shearing, industry talks and Scottish produce championships, amounting to 252 of hours of live content, plus a further thirty hours of on-demand video material, drew a total crowd of 270,000 people from across eighty-seven countries around the world, and garnered over two million engagements on social media. For an optimistic but untried idea, formulated, funded and delivered in less than 12 weeks, that is one hell of an outcome.

At the summing up press conference, held appropriately via Zoom, a clearly pleased, but no doubt relieved, RHASS chairman Bill Gray said: “When we reimagined a hybrid Royal Highland Show we couldn’t have believed it would have had such a monumental impact on so many people from right across the globe. Our aim was to connect and entertain our communities and, in the process, shine a light on our food producers, farmers and our way of life. We have achieved this with people from over eighty countries across the globe tuning in, and with the content online for a further three months, there is even more of an opportunity to reach a wider audience.”

On reflection, Mr Gray said that what stood out for him from the week just passed was the 'joy and delight' of exhibitors at getting to come out, meet each other and compete. People had no doubt been struggling with lockdown, so it had been a genuine pleasure to provide what was, for many of them, their first day back in the company of their peers. RHASS chief executive Alan Laidlaw agreed, and added that the otherwise empty showground had produced one unexpected effect – the victory roars, yelps and hurrahs from exhibitors as they were tapped out as champion were made much more audible.

But both men reckoned that alongside the visceral thrill of company and competition in the ring, the more intangible effects of making the sights and sounds of the Royal Highland Show available to a world audience in high definition, then watching the internet traffic hit 'phenomenal' heights, would be the lasting legacy of the Showcase.

Said Mr Gray: “There is no doubt that we will take this hybrid concept forward for future years and in doing so we will achieve greater exposure for our sector, our sponsors and our members. I couldn’t be prouder of our team of directors, staff, contractors and volunteers who have left no stone unturned to make this Royal Highland Showcase dream a reality.”

Mr Laidlaw added: “We anticipate that this will continue to grow as word of month spreads and more people from across the globe log on to the to view the content. This will give further exposure of our industry at a crucial time for the sector and reinforces the influence and impact of what has been achieved with this hybrid event.”

What is under discussion now is to what extent the 2022 Royal Highland Show will incorporate Showcase-style live-streaming, and where the balance point is between attracting a live crowd, and making the virtual experience available further afield. "We don't want to offer people too much of a temptation to not come see us," noted Mr Gray. The feeling is, however, that the show and the society have everything to gain from this wider reach, as very few fans of the in-person event are likely to forsake their visit to Ingliston in favour of watching it on the internet. Conversely, those hooked by this year's internet presence may well become future in-person attendees: "Not just random viewers – people with an interest in the animals, in the genetics. In the USA and Canada, the live-stream was going like an absolute fair. A lot of people overseas will have added us to their bucket list for a live visit as a result of watching this year."

This interpretation of the online interest was backed up by anecdotes of exhibitors fresh from the ring receiving phonecalls about specific tups that had just enjoyed the Showcase spotlight, and the well-reported tale of Wells Dancing Brave, the three-year-old Shetland Pony stallion that was tapped out as Standard Champion, and soon after sold to a buyer who was watching the live-stream.

Mr Laidlaw paused to note that the high quality footage and sound beamed out of Ingliston last week would not have been possible without the extensive investment the RHASS had made in power and connectivity infrastructure onsite – those expensive trenches that he had once trudged the agri-press around to view: "I love it when a plan comes together," he grinned.

But equally, without the imperative of the lockdown, no one would have dared try such an ambitious amount of live coverage on a fully populated showground, so this year's roll-out on an otherwise empty site was a valuable experience from which lessons were being learnt for the future.

Having contributed in no small part to that success with some £750,000 of funding for the online show, Scotland's rural affairs minister Mairi Gougeon commented: “The Royal Highland Showcase marks a step change for the Royal Highland Show and Scottish agriculture. Through the new website and online videos, people, farms and businesses across the world were able to experience Scottish agriculture and food and drink.

“I’m so pleased to have been able to see some of the Royal Highland Showcase in person and see the hard work that went into preparing this event and opening it up to a global audience. I look forward to seeing the long-term benefits from the £750,000 of the Scottish Government funding and seeing how we can continue showing people the best of Scotland’s animals and produce.”

Speaking for the event's lead sponsor, Royal Bank of Scotland, the chair of its Scotland board, Malcolm Buchanan, said: “The Royal Highland Show is one of the longest continuous partnerships in Royal Bank of Scotland’s history, and this year, as the Royal Highland Showcase, it illustrated what can be achieved and what challenges can be overcome through working together. We have worked with the RHASS since 1981 and this year’s reimagined hybrid event has brought together the very best of what Scotland has to offer and through digital and fintech channels and technology, helped it reach audiences on a global scale.”