For more than 30 years, the roads around the Royal Highland Showground at Ingliston (pronounced Ingle-ston) reverberated to the regular thunder of racing engines and big crowds, wowed by the thrilling spectacle of drivers running the gauntlet between armco barriers and showground buildings.
With temporary barriers needed to be put up every time racing was held, the economic viability of the course was probably always going to be problematic, notwithstanding the the impact of the opening of the permanent Knockhill Circuit in the 1980s.
Ingliston soldiered on until 1994, after which circuit racing ceased, though it has since seen use as a venue for supercar ride days, sprint competitions and two revival events in 2015 and 2017.
With the demise of Charterhall at the end 1964, the Scottish racing scene needed a new venue. Motorsport scored itself a slice of luck the same year, however, when the Royal Highland Agricultural Society (RHAS) suffered a rain-sodden Highland Show. To prevent a repetition of the quagmire that duly ensued, it decided it would need to asphalt the roads at its showground located next to Edinburgh Airport.
Scottish Motor Racing Club secretary Ian Scott-Watson, himself a farmer and RHAS member, sensed an opportunity and proposed that if the new roads included a race track, it would boost revenue. The RHAS agreed, no doubt helped by the close associations Scott-Watson had with the chairman and treasurer and by Jim Clark also being a member and shareholder.
Scott-Watson and SMRC chairman John Romanes put together layout proposals and formed Scotcircuits Ltd to raise the necessary finances. Existing perimeter roads featured alongside some of the internal connecting roads of the showground, along with a new specially-built section comprising several fast uphill swerves. These in time would become known as the Esses.
Finances were duly raised in a remarkable six weeks, with £20,000 being spent on the works to prepare the next circuit. One of the benefits of using the showgrounds was that there was an existing and established infrastructure, including arena grandstands, toilets and a cafe and restaurant, alongside abundant parking.
Short but challenging lap
The track itself was short but challenging, not least due to the tight confines. It was among the first to feature three-lane Armco barriers around the perimeter, though there was still a plethora of trackside obstructions such as trees, buildings, telegraph poles and the wooden structures that formed some of the Highland Show attractions. Spinning to the infield remained a hazardous affair, which rather taught an element of self-discipline to the regular racers.
Corner names reflected the original use of the venue: Farmers, Bankers, Foresters, Gardeners, Shepherds, Brewers, Vets and Merchants. These reflected the buildings and display areas that were dotted around the showground and which sprang into life every June for the Royal Highland Show.
The pit lane was a simple ribbon of asphalt running beside the SAI building; with a blind 90-degree left turn back onto the track, you couldn't rejoin the circuit until the pit exit marshal waved you out. The paddock was at least in a covered building; though as this was usually used as cattle sheds, it was perhaps not glamorous but it did protect the racers and their crews from the elements.
A shakedown event took place in March 1965 to check the installations, with the first meeting proper taking place in April 1965. Jim Clark toured the track in a veteran Argyll.
It soon became the perfect club racing venue, with average crowds of 12,000 packing in to see the actions during its seven meetings that year. The track length meant that only grids of 16 could be accommodated, but that did little to dampen enthusiasm.
The only thorn in the crown was the fact that the track was very much a subsidiary to the main event, the Highland Show. This meant all of the track facilities, including the barriers, would have to be dismantled each year for a 10-week spell across the height of summer. This was both expensive and forced a mid-season hiatus right at the point when the weather would be more favourable than usual.
New loop expands circuit
After a few years, Scott-Watson thought he had the answer; a new extension was penned to form a 2.3 mile circuit within the car park, so that roads inside the arena would be unaffected. It looked promising but required major funds which were not immediately available, so the opportunity came and passed.
Nevertheless, there was still an appetite to make the racing itself more sustainable, so funding was secured for a smaller extension in 1968, which added a new section featuring a straight leading to a tight hairpin bend, initially named West Gate. Two years later came another change when all of the corners were re-named, with perhaps more understandable meanings attached. New names included Caravan (due to a nearby caravan site), the Esses and Clock (due to the large clock on the race control building). Southstand, Hairpin, Lefthander and Arena were all fairly self-explanatory.
So Ingliston carved out its reputation as a fast (given the confines) and furious club racing venue throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, though there were some national-level events too, including occasional visits by Formula 3 and Atlantic. The main stock in trade were the sports cars and saloons, which often promoted close racing and more than a few skirmishes. Jim Clark’s cousin, Doug Niven, once famously had an enormous crash on the kink leading to the hairpin when the throttle jammed on his V8 special saloon. The crash barriers folded back and the car ended up crashing onto the roof of a toilet block, injuring several people inside. Generally, there was no such thing as a small crash at Ingliston…
Bike racing too made the odd appearance, there never with quite the same frequency or success. A few meetings in 1965 had poor attendances, so there were no more stand-alone events until 1979, when Loch Lomond Motor Cycling Club organised the Mick Grant Trophy race meeting. A total of 14 races featured an assortment of racers from north and south of the border, including Mick Grant himself. Despite this, it proved a short-lived affair and Ingliston reverted to being cars-only thereafter.
John Romanes handed over control of the circuit operations in 1978 to Graham Hamilton and Gordon Dalyell, who continued the good work by securing rounds of series such as the BMW Counties Cup. However, finances were becoming scarcer and late in 1982 Hugh McCaig (of Ecurie Ecosse fame) stepped up the plate to inject some cash and take over - partly out of self-interest as he had a Formula Libre title on the line that he would otherwise have been unable to fight for if racing ceased!
Racing decline begins
For 10 years, McCaig ran the track with Graham Gauld, reinvigorating the racing and seeing crowds return, helped by the introduction of a new road saloon series and securing the Marlboro Challenge races. But of course, Ingliston by then had a new competitor in Knockhill Circuit, which was fast gaining importance on the local and national scene.
Over time, it became more and more difficult to make money, partly due to the unique challenges brought by the summer-time closures and costs of removing the crash barriers each year for the Highland Show. The RHAS began to see it as more of a nuisance than a money-spinner so the omens were not good. Following the Bradford football stadium fire, the local council condemned the South stand and ordered the Arena one to be reduced in size, reducing the spectator capacity and thus further hampering profit levels.
In the winter of 1989 Sir Jackie Stewart publicly announced his plans for a Scottish Motorsport centre, to be based at Ingliston featuring a redeveloped circuit using the name but on a new location nearby, featuring research and development facilities and showrooms and garages around the perimeter. A budget of £80 million was mooted but in the end could not be raised and nothing further came of the plans.
By the 1990s, McCaig and Gauld had handed over the reins to other investors, but a lack of funds to upgrade the track to modern safety facilities as well as increased pressure from the RHAS for other non-motoring related activity spelled the beginning of the end.
After 31 years of racing, the final meeting took place on October 16, 1994. Robert Thomson took the final ever victory in his Vauxhall Nova as part of the Goodyear Eagle Road Saloon Cars race. Thus the curtain fell on competitive motorsport at Edinburgh’s track and the barriers and other infrastructure for racing were removed.
It was not, however, the final chapter at the circuit. In around 2012, the southern portion of the circuit, including the straight and hairpin, was revived for supercar driving events, which successfully operate year-round to give people a chance to lap in Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris and other exotica.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the circuit in 2015, a revival meeting was organised. This featured some static displays of racing cars for the circuit’s past, along with the chance to drive a lap of the full course for the first time since its closure. While new grandstand having been built directly over the old start-finish line, the former pit lane entry and the road to the rear of the grandstand was widened and resurfaced in order to complete the lap.
Mixed weather conditions and a lack of racing car activity on the course limited the first Revival’s success, but a second edition was organised in May 2017, this time with more motorsport content, including a timed sprint event. Despite 11,000 spectators turning out to make the event much more of a success and leading to an announcement that it would become a yearly event, the Revival has to date failed to be repeated for a third time.
With special thanks to Iain Nicolson for some of the information in this track history.