This weekend it’s “show time” down on the farm. Scotland’s food industry is putting on its 178th annual Royal Highland Show at Ingliston on the western edge of Edinburgh. Some 200,000 people are expected to attend, not to mention the 6,000 horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, hens and a thousand “trade exhibitors” offering anything from gardening tools to combine harvesters and country clothing to banking services.
It’s a chance for our often-forgotten rural community – and its £38bn economy – to put on a spectacular display of its products, skills and culture. There are animal parades, horse-jumping, cookery demonstrations, chain-saw carving, pole climbing, horse-shoeing competitions, folk bands, pipe bands and a Gaelic choir. There’s no end to what they do in the countryside.
But there are challenges too. Like Brexit. The Rural Affairs Minister Fergus Ewing chose the opening day of the Highland Show to launch the Scottish Government’s plans for managing the transition to a post-EU farming industry. He said current subsidies, worth £500m a year, would continue for two years, then over the next three years there would be a “simplification” of the support scheme, with less bureaucracy, a more environmental approach to subsidies and a cap on individual farm payments.
“We didn’t choose to be in this situation,” said Mr Ewing. “Our departure from the EU and its bewildering set of uncertainties, have been thrust upon us.” Among the uncertainties, of course, are post-Brexit trade deals with America, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere which could bring cheap, less regulated food flooding into the British market. And there’s the question of who will pick our fruit and vegetable harvest when Eastern European workers are no longer automatically allowed in.
There are other uncertainties. Like the weather. This has been a long, cold winter and sheep farmers in particular have suffered heavy losses. Then there is the worrying prospect of two of the four big supermarkets merging, Sainsbury’s and Asda, giving them stronger monopoly power to force farm-gate prices down.
So although farming profits last year were fairly good at £917m, it still leaves the average farm with a profit of just £24,400. Not a lot when you consider the hours of labour put in and the risks taken. All of that, of course, is forgiven and forgotten in the pride and euphoria of The Royal Highland Show.
All our pride and euphoria went up in flames last weekend, when the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s red-stone masterpiece, was destroyed by fire, for the second time. The 100 year old building was undergoing a £34m restoration after a previous fire in 2014. We don’t yet know what caused the fire or why it spread so quickly and why the alarm wasn’t raised sooner.
On Saturday morning, when the smoke finally cleared and a drone camera sent us overhead pictures, we were left staring into the heart of the charred remains of our Mackintosh heritage. A week later and we have begun debating whether we should spend the £100m it may cost to rebuild the original school or give up and go for a bran new building.
It looks like we are going to lose yet another of Glasgow’s iconic names, the Clydesdale Bank. It’s merging with Virgin Money to become a real challenger to the likes of the Royal and Barclays. It was formed by a group of Glasgow merchants in 1838 “chiefly as a local bank” and now its name is being lost in the “new money” world of Virgin (formed in 1995). 1,500 of the two banks’ 9,500 staff are expected to go. Have we learned anything from the banking crash of 2008 when banks became too big for their boots ? It appears not.
History is also repeating itself on our east coast sand dunes. Councillors have voted in favour of an American businessman’s plans to build a golf course on Coul Links in Sutherland. Like Donald Trump’s resort on the Aberdeenshire coast, Mike Kaiser’s course lies partly on a protected site of special scientific interest, home to rare wading birds and orchids. Local politicians ignored their own officials’ advice and the environmental lobby and voted to give planning permission to the 18-hole golf course and clubhouse. They reckon it will bring 250 jobs to the area. Everyone is now waiting to see if the Scottish government will intervene.
Finally, I’m delighted to report that we humans are getting our own back on those pesky midges. The Brander Lodge Hotel and Bistro near Oban is preparing to serve “midge burgers”, a normal burger with fried midges sprinkled on top like breadcrumbs. The insects will be collected in the hotel’s midge nets, well populated at this time of year. The new midge burgers are being sent off to the food safety people for testing but as soon as they are declared fit for human consumption, I’ll be on the road to Oban to eat a few million midges before they eat me.