Pulling in the crowds

The Royal Highland Show is full of learning opportunities, says Seonag Mackinnon

Roll up, roll up for the Royal Highland Show held outside Edinburgh in June. See the display of dry stone walling and hand-made Scottish quilts. See the men in Panama hats and kilts trotting around the arena holding the reins of prize-winning ponies. See the powerful Shire horses with valanced hairy legs. Come to this annual event where children learn about animals, people and the environment without ever suspecting the learning process is taking place.

The RHS has changed over the years to appeal to a broader section of the population. The education stand, once a modest affair in a marquee, has expanded to a comprehensive range of activities under cover in a substantial permanent structure. Agricultural machinery is still at the show in bulk at sales stands but no longer dominates.

The machinery is in any case of much interest to the mechanically minded child and to those who want to know what a combine harvester actually looks like. It is perhaps one of the earliest long words that children ever try rolling round their tongue. For the adult visitor there is a strange attraction in coming face to face for the first time with such items as a Dairymaster hydraulic slurry scraper system and a Muckmaster muck moving system.

In the education centre, which is a joint initiative by the Royal Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland and the Scottish Farm and Countryside Educational Trust, children discover more about the country. There are displays, hands-on activities and discussions with well informed enthusiasts from around 12 different organisations such as the Forestry Commission, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Environmental Protection agency.

Activities include information technology work, worksheets and the chance to touch real young farm animals. Hand-written stop press notices record latest births of chicks, goslings, ducklings, black sheep and kid goats. While admiring these and Humbug the Shetland pony, children are exposed to wallcharts informing them that goats were domesticated 4,000 years ago and that there are half a million pigs and nine million sheep in Scotland (four million more sheep than humans). Children also learn not to be over-enthusiastic in embracing an animal and to wash their hands afterwards. Staff are on hand to encourage this.

A display of winning entries in the Scottish Farm and Countryside Educational Trust Shield and Challenge competitions offers pupils the chance to learn about such things as the food we eat from Scottish farms. A keen reader will now know that an ostrich produces meat similar to beef fillet and Scottish farmers deploy one male and two females per half acre. Children take part in an energy conservation puzzle. Elsewhere they pick up badges, caps and cereal bowls from Kelloggs. Pupils' excitement here was matched only by that of the crowd around the Mackie ice cream stand where sample spoonfuls were being handed out. This company was one of many taking part in the largest exhibition in the world of Scottish food and drink. Cookery demonstrations and a taste of everything from whisky liqueurs to lemon curd to smoked salmon seemed to draw far more visitors than the conventional RHS activities outside. Among the more curious foods on display were haggis samosas, venison sausages and sweet and sour pork doughnuts.

Curiosities outside included a stand proclaiming the British Blonde Society - a breed of cow, Blonde d'Aquitaine. An Eriskay pony, the uncrossed descendant of those used by the Picts at the battle of Nechtansmere and later by Bruce at Bannockburn, was the special feature at the stand of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Horses of a different kind cantered into the show-jumping arena.

The Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery made an even more colourful display. Sheepshearing, sheep dog trials, tree felling, pole climbing, horseshoeing and horse shoe making held children's attention.

Admission for schoolchildren Pounds 3.50. Details: The Scottish Farm and Countryside Educational Trust, tel: 0131 333 3805

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