‘The Highland Society of Edinburgh’ was formed in 1784, however, its objectives weren’t defined until the following year, on the 11th of January, 1785.
What is today The Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland was founded in Fortune’s Tontine Tavern, in Edinburgh, on the 9th of February, 1784, as ‘The Highland Society of Edinburgh’. The Society was formed for the improvement of the Highlands, a mere two years after the repeal of the ‘Dress Act’ of 1746 and at a time when there was renewed interest in Highland culture. The Society’s own fortunes improved three years later, in 1787, when it received its first Royal Charter as ‘The Highland Society of Scotland at Edinburgh’. Today, the Society, now based at the Royal Highland Centre near Ingliston, is intended for those people who “value, enjoy and support the rural areas and communities of Scotland.” It is also for those who enjoy “the finer products of Scotland’s land-based and allied industries.” And most certainly it is for everyone who “supports the very best standards in agriculture, forestry and stewardship of the countryside”, all of which are an essential part of Scotland’s heritage – and its future. In addition, the Society is responsible for organising its flagship enterprise and Scotland’s premier agricultural event; the annual Royal Highland Show.
In summary, the original objects of the Society, which were defined on the 11th of January, 1785, were to promote the regeneration of rural Scotland and its agricultural interests, with a focus on education and the study of the Gaelic culture. In detail, those objectives were:
1. An enquiry into the present state of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and the condition of their inhabitants.
2. An enquiry into the means of improvement of the Highlands by establishing towns and villages; by facilitating communication through different parts of the Highlands of Scotland; by roads and bridges, advancing agriculture and extending fisheries, introducing useful trades and manufactures; and by an exertion to unite the efforts of the proprietors, and call the attention of the Government towards the encouragement and production of these beneficial purposes.
3. The Society shall also pay a proper attention to the preservation of the language, poetry, and music of the Highlands.
In the Society’s first year, it did rather well on the cultural front as a Professor of Gaelic was elected and music competitions were held. The Society also supported the culture of the Highlands through the compilation of a Gaelic dictionary, which was published in 1828 after having taken fourteen years to compile at a cost of nearly £4,000. On the fisheries front, in 1786, an early report of a committee of the Society was passed to the House of Commons Fisheries Committee. That report led to an Act for the setting up of a company with the express purpose of founding coastal villages and towns in the Highlands and Islands. The Society’s early efforts on the agricultural front date from its very beginnings in 1785, when medals for essays on agricultural subjects were first offered. Not too much later, in 1790, on the initiative of the Society, the Chair of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh was founded.
The Society held its first Show in December of 1822, on a modest, 1¼ acre site in the back garden of Queensberry House, which was then a barracks, in Edinburgh’s Canongate. That general show was the first open to competition from any part of Scotland, in which some number of cattle, between sixty and seventy-five, were exhibited. The 1,052 visitors and members who attended the show, paid one shilling each. The relative success of the show and other initiatives led, in 1834, to the Society’s title changing to ‘The Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’, thanks to its second Royal Charter. By that time, fifty years after its formation, the society had become less of a Highland Society and more of an Agricultural Society, which is what it has remained. Certainly that was a significant change, but you can make up your own mind as to its appropriateness.
In the 19th Century, the Society made great progress. From 1823, it became Patron of the lectures of William Dick at the Edinburgh Veterinary School, where later, in 1840, Dick was installed as its first Professor of Veterinary Studies. Later, in 1856, the Society was granted the power to conduct examinations in agriculture. That, quite naturally, encouraged the improvement of land, and the development of machinery and implements. Prizes were also instituted for a wide variety of agricultural skills, from ploughing and the like, to breeding livestock and the production of agricultural produce – ‘neeps and tatties’. Sometime before the turn of the 20th Century, the Society benefitted from yet another Royal Charter; that one incorporating it as a charity. The Society then got its ‘Royal’ title as recently as 1948, on the occasion of the visit of George VI to the Society’s show in Inverness. The current Most Royal Personage, Queen Elizabeth I (of Scotland) & II (of England), accepted the role as Patron of the Society in 1984, its bi-Centennial year.
Today in Scotland as for much of its history, its rural industries are major contributors to the economy and character of the country. Throughout the highlands and islands, the lowlands and the borders, Scots folk produce a good proportion of the nation’s food and drink. They also manage the countryside and its conservation, which is often taken for granted, and provide access to sport and recreation for hundreds and thousands of Munro-baggers, and millions of others. Fortunately, according to its website, the Society continues to encourage advances in the spheres of education, science, technology and craftsmanship “as a means of building businesses and creating wider public knowledge and understanding of the land and its resources.” Long may it so do.