"I can't wait."

Last week, when I met up with Bill Gray, the chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, he made it abundantly plain that he has had quite enough of waiting for his four days at the helm of a full-blown Royal Highland Show, having seen both the 2020 and 2021 events compromised by Covid.

So as the special celebration of the bicentenary 2022 show approaches, Bill confessed to some impatience for the moment the gates at Ingliston can finally be flung open and rural Scotland can be brought back together again under the Society's banner.

"There's a watershed moment coming in the next few weeks for rural Scotland, and our industry," he said. "I hope that once we have the show successfully behind us, that will herald a sense that things have returned to order, and people can get on with life with a little less anxiety."

But until those gates close again on the night of Sunday, June 26, life is going to be non-stop for Bill and the team at Ingliston, who are all committed to giving everybody a truly great Royal Highland Show experience: "I think that, as an entity, to deliver this year's show in the best way that we can, is the best thing the Society can do for our members and the public. We need to get that over the line, then we can all draw breath and think about how we move forward from there."

Taking the chairmanship in 2019, Bill's tenure in the normally two year post was extended to three years at the invitation of the board, keeping him onboard to lead the Highland out from its lockdown this year, an honour for which he is immensely grateful, particularly as the show celebrates its 200th anniversary.

In fact, aside from that unusual three-year term, Bill stresses that it has been a 'massive honour' to have been made chairman at all, having not originally come from an agricultural background.

But leadership of such a key organisation could never be a matter for heredity anyway, and son of a Belfast medical surgeon or not, Bill has more than proven his ability since joining the farming industry via an HND in Agriculture from Auchincruive, which was topped off by him receiving a RHASS Silver Medal from the then society chairman Fraser Morrison. Managing an arable business at Preston Hall, Pathhead, Midlothian, since 1994, he has consistently led from the front, taking part in a very successful Lothians Monitor farm partnership with Saughland, and subsequently winning the AgriScot Arable Farm of the Year award.

"I suppose I am quite a technical person," he mused. "I am not afraid to try things, new technologies... and those who never try things, don't make mistakes."

He notes, with particular enthusiasm, that this year's Highland will by necessity involve a catch up with three whole years' worth of agri-tech advances, all getting rolled out into public at once.

In this personal preference for innovation, Bill is, albeit quietly and modestly, the very embodiment of the Society's founding principles. Back in 1784, when RHASS was created, its stated mission was the improvement of Scottish agriculture and the regeneration of rural Scotland.

Of course there was also the intent to preserve farming culture, its poetry, songs and art – but the RHASS founders were not backward looking, and knew that the best way to celebrate what had gone before was for Scottish farming to survive and thrive, and thus have the assets and influence to maintain an unbroken thread running from its past into its future.

So while tradition has always been in the weave of RHASS, so has the pursuit of excellence, the endless quest for improvement that every stockman, plant breeder and machinery manufacturer knows very well. The best way to honour the efforts of past generations is to continue to try just as hard as they did to do things better, whilst avoiding doing things worse.

Bill appreciates only too well this balancing act, and how the society's annual jamboree at Ingliston must simultaneously manifest itself, like Ebeneezer Scrooge's instructive Christmas Eve visitors, as the embodied spirit of Scottish farming's past, present and future.

"The important thing for the Society is to ensure that it is relevant and up-to-date, as well as being traditional and maintaining all the heritage that is behind it," said Bill. "We have to respect the heritage, because that is what has shaped who we are as an organisation, and indeed as an industry. Everything that has gone before us has given us the things we have now. But we should never be afraid to embrace what makes us better."

There is an extensive list of improvements, both major and minor, that visitors and particularly the society’s loyal and supportive members coming to the show will benefit from, although the undeniable centrepiece is the new Members Pavilion, a smart multipurpose building stood in place of the old MacRobert edifice, looking out with an unimpeded view of the main ring. The Society staff are rather proud of this new arrival, and although it has already seen some service, they very much regard RHS 2022 as its true debut, and look forward to Members' reaction when they encounter this new landmark for the first time.

Less tangibly, the Covid years have left a hi-tech legacy, as the lessons learned during 2021's closed-doors show are applied to the full-scale event. Bill admits that the Society would never have undertaken the huge technical exercise of streaming the livestock competitions live on the internet had it not been obliged to at least try by the constraints of lockdown.

Having proven it possible, there will be more of the same this year, although not needing to be quite as comprehensive, given that many of those who want to watch the livestock rings will be there in person to do so. But look out for Scottish TV presenter Dougie Vipond roving the showground with a camera crew broadcasting 'Highland TV' across the internet for the duration.

There will also be a free RHS 'app' that people can can download to their smartphones, and access real-time information about what is going on and where, hopefully helping to promote features and events that might otherwise have been missed, and perhaps encouraging a more even dispersal of the crowds to every corner of the site.

In more tangible terms, there's helpful little things like more stuff for the kids to do in the Countryside area, whilst their parents take the weight off their feet – "Some pedal tractors to tire them out," Bill grins – and the big wheel being set up to give visitors a spectacular view of the site from high above.

As well as the long standing partnership with RBS, there's the beer sponsorship tie up with Scottish brewers Innis and Gunn, which brings with it the knowledge that the beer being sold onsite is actually brewed using cereals grown on some of the show directors' farms. That kind of synchronicity very much appeals to Bill, who sees the show as a multi-faceted gem uniting, for four busy days, the varied threads of Scottish farming, food and rural life.

"This is what we are here for, supporting all of these facets that go to make this show successful – the agri trade, the livestock exhibitors, the equestrians, the food and drink, the shopping, the retailers. It will be great to have them all back under our roof, and have them re-engage with us and their customers.

"Not to single them out, but we have been blown away by the support we've had from the agri trade," he added. "They are back onboard in big numbers. It's been very good to see that enthusiasm to get back out there and put on a show."

Of course, as well as the return of old faces, for some people, 2022 will be their first Royal Highland Show. Bill notes that this year's schools programme is, for the first time, bringing in more secondary pupils than primary kids, a welcome development given the amount of food provenance education that will be on offer, teaching this generation of school age teens how best to make their own food shopping choices.

"Of course, there are a number of directors who have not experienced a show yet either," he observed. "There are some staff who have not experienced a show before, indeed some of our new contractors, some trade folk, even some stock competitors who haven't been before, so there is a wee bit of learning to be done – but that is exciting."

Does he have a worry?

"My feet aren't great. I'll have to pick my shoes carefully. I'm going to be out there every day, like all the directors, walking about and taking part."

We've been sitting chatting in the showground's 'big house', and as we head outside to go our separate ways, he adds: "Another great thing about the show, is that if you try to walk from here to that grandstand," he gestures, "I defy you to do it in anything less than half an hour.

"Because you'll see people, and go 'hello, I've not seen you for while', and the next thing is two other people join you, then somebody drifts off, then you move a few feet, then meet someone else... and those chats, that is what it is all about, as much as anything.

"Really, I can't wait."