Holyrood talks to Royal Highland Show chairman Willie Gill
Why does Scotland need a champion?
Scotland has so much going on and so much to offer, from its thriving food and drink sector to its ability to produce some of the most forward thinking and canny individuals in history.
Its rich tapestry of culture, academia, landscape, business and, most importantly, its people make it unique. It needs a champion to ensure that these things are shouted about – people need to know what we are capable of.
What are the best parts of your role?
As chairman of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS), I get to play a part in delivering the organisation’s charitable remit, which includes allocating grants and awards to individuals involved in Scotland’s agricultural, land based and rural industries.
Last year, for example, we sent four ‘young scholars’ to Australia to take part in the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth Conference in Brisbane.
By meeting up with like-minded individuals involved in farming in other countries, they could share best practice and bring home ideas that will help our own industry.
I also really enjoy working alongside our educational charity, the Royal Highland Education Trust, whose goal is to help create a more food literate generation of tomorrow by teaching primary-school children about food and farming.
As a farmer myself, it’s wonderful to see the connections being made and young people appreciating what it takes to get their food to their plate.
What steps has the RHASS taken to remain relevant given its 232-year history?
With every step the agricultural and land-based industries take, we take it with them. We are there to support and promote.
For all of those 232 years we have maintained an open dialogue with our members and listened to what they need. Our directors span the length and breadth of the country and themselves are involved professionally in the industries we support, so they provide us with a vital link to our members and the challenges they face.
We support up and coming talent through providing grants and scholarships and each year. We recognise those leading the way in innovation within the agricultural technology industry at our Technical Innovation Awards.
What are the challenges you and your members face over the next few years?
This industry makes a significant economic contribution, yet it is under threat from global economic, political and environmental pressures.
There is also a lack of appreciation for the role the farmer plays in everyday life; from growing our food to being the guardian of our landscape, we need to bridge the gap between producer and consumer because it is the public who ultimately determines our success.
Public opinion sways political opinion as well as ensuring that we are paid a fair price for the quality food we grow.
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Is the Royal Highland Show more than just a showcase for Scotland’s farming sector?
The show is Scotland’s biggest celebration of farming, food and rural life. Farming is at the heart of it, but food and rural living is intrinsically linked to farming, so it’s a natural step for us to make this a big part of the event and these are things that the non-farming public can definitely relate to.
Our food event within the show, Scotland’s Larder Live!, features over 100 food and drink producers from the length and breadth of Scotland and further afield.
Roughly £8 million will be spent at the 1,100 trade stands over the four days, which sell everything from rural fashion and designer tweeds to bespoke jewellery, art and fine furniture. There are also loads of activities to get involved in, for visitors young and old.
What’s the biggest headache in terms of organising such a large-scale event?
The Highland show is known for being the number one showcase for livestock if you are a farmer. It is described as a ‘shop window’ for animals and is very good for business.
If your animal does well at the Highland, its value increases almost immediately, as does the profile of your farm.
As a result of this, more and more people want to enter their livestock and each year, we have to find a place to accommodate them, which is proving harder and harder given that we can’t magic up more space. In truth, we are victims of our own success!
From a logistics point of view, just look at the numbers to see what challenges we face. We have to park 50,000 cars, get 188,000 people through the gates and provide them with the facilities they need whilst there, ensure that around 7000 animals are safely loaded onto the site and happy for the week that they are there, co-ordinate 1,100 trade stands and all of their individual requirements and not to mention the traffic coming in and out of the showground!
Saying that, we have the best team in place, with years and years of experience between them, so although it’s a challenge, we are very good at it.
How will this year’s Royal Highland Show differ from those that have come before it?
One of the most significant differences at this year’s show are the changes that have been made in the showground. £1.6 million has been invested to make the event run even more smoothly, although it may not be very noticeable to those who don’t know it well.
A livestock underpass has been built to remove the historical build-up of crowds behind the main ring as animals leave and enter the ring. Animals go over, crowds go under.
We have also added fibre broadband to the site, meaning the trade stands and their customers can enjoy fast wi-fi for transactions – so there’s less need to queue up at the cash machine!
In terms of content, some highlights for 2016 include the Scottish Ice Cream, Butter and Cheese Championships. We also have an extreme unicyclists’ display in the Countryside Area and ABBA Gold taking to the stage for the first time on the West Stage on Saturday 25 June!
What do you enjoy most about the Royal Highland Show?
Meeting up with old friends from other parts of the country, often it is the only chance we get to see each other. The show is, primarily, a social show. A chance for people to meet up, catch up with old friends and make new ones.
Lots of men and women have met their spouses here and now still return along with their children. As chairman, it has given me the opportunity to meet many interesting people, both at the show and at other events representing the society.
Have problems over Common Agricultural Policy payments jeopardised the future of the agricultural sector?
There is no doubt that this has been a challenge for the rural sector. The knock-on effect on other associated industries has had an effect as well.
The banks have, I believe, largely been supportive, however, for many the stress of the situation has been colossal.
The resilience of the sector often amazes me: farmers over the years have had experience of having to batten down the hatches for a while. They have always invested while they can so there will be an effect on local tradesmen, suppliers and machinery dealers.
Is Scottish agriculture too dependent on subsidies?
I am sure that I am not alone in wishing that we were not dependent on subsidies. Sadly, the prices in the shops bear little relation to the farm gate prices.
Many of the stands in Scotland’s Larder Live have taken matters into their own hands by developing their product and selling it themselves. While this is not an option for everybody, it is heartening to see what can be done.
This will be your last Highland Show as RHASS chairman. What will be your lasting memory of your time in post?
The immense honour of being entrusted with this position in such a respected society. I have enjoyed my time as chairman and this would not have been possible without a lot of help from my wife and family.