In 1939 a small group of Whalsay women set up a branch of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute on the island. Twenty-seven women attended the first meeting and the first order of business was to set up a committee and decide when and how frequently they would meet up. A young Maggie Leask attended the first meeting and was a long serving member of the “Rural” which was to meet once a month on a Thursday evening for the next 70 years.
The current members decided to organise a special meeting to celebrate their 70th anniversary and invited along some of the original members, including Maggie Leask. By strange coincidence 27 women came along.
President Joan Hutchison read out the minutes from the very first meeting and some of the juicy bits from meetings held over the first few years. These early meetings were held against the backdrop of the war, although there was scarcely any mention of the war in the minutes, apart from the occasional organisation of social events and dances for the forces stationed on the isle at the time.
The early meetings seemed to involve a fair bit of singing and dancing. Ruby Hutchison and Winnie Polson were mentioned in the early minutes as regular entertainers who would sing and play music at the meetings. They both came along to the anniversary meeting along with some other early members including Ina Irvine, Jeannie Stewart, Babbi Reid, Gracie Anderson, Laura Dickson and Cathy Simpson and they shared some lovely memories with the current members.
Secretary Frances Valente read out the minutes from the last meeting and it was interesting to contrast how times had changed over 70 years. The minutes were less formal as members are now addressed by their first names and the singing of the national anthem is no longer a feature of the meetings.
The change in finances was quite remarkable. In 1939 the Whalsay SWRI was awarded an annual grant of £4 for transport costs and membership was just thrupence. Seventy years later the current members had just raised £3,180 for the bairns’ Christmas parties; an annual event that was started by the original members and has carried on ever since.
However, despite the changes that have taken place over the years, some essential aspects had not changed. It is still a splendid place to have a cup of tea and catch up with your friends, and if you learn something new like how to do a spot of flower arranging or quilting then so much the better.