Just a minute – Althing papers are now at the Archives

A little piece of local history is taking root in the Shetland Archives, with the handover of 30 years of minutes from the Althing.

The move opens up the chance for the public to read documents dating back to the Althing’s creation in 1950.

For decades the documents have been kept in the home of Althing stalwart and former chairwoman Florence Grains, who stood down from the committee in 2015 after 41 years as a member.

But now the minutes, many hand-written and accompanied by press reports, have been divided between two bound volumes as part of their move to newfound prominence.

Now, both Althing and archive representatives hope the shift will bring the minutes new prominence.

At a casual glance, there certainly seem to be gems among them. But the documents may also be seen as a sign of the times – not least the 1980 motion, Women’s liberation is leading to the breakdown of society.

The handover happened almost 67 years to the day after the first debate. It was November 11th when the Althing discussed the controversial motion, Empty pews – is the church responsible? Two kirk elders sat on either side of the debate on that occasion, with the then Tingwall minister, James Robertson, who stood against the motion, winning 24-7.

Other debates support the notion attitudes have changed over the years.

Mr Smith said: “There was a debate about capital punishment. It was striking how utterly different the result was from what we would have today.”

He also highlighted a debate on the Shetland Movement, the group which once sought more autonomy for Shetland.

There was one Donald Sutherland who failed to be convinced by the movement.

“I think the Shetland Movement was like Columbus,” he was heard to say. “When Columbus went to America, he didn’t know where he was going; when he got to America, he didn’t know where he was; and when he got back he didn’t know where he’d been.”

Agricultural matters have come to the fore in the past – such as a talk on liver fluke worms in sheep and cattle.

Politics has been to the fore on many occasions. Those perturbed by continued dominance of the Liberal Democrats in Shetland’s politics can take solace from motions in the past.

January 1954 heard arguments that A Liberal MP is a luxury no Shetlander can afford.

Originally the Althing Social Group, the organisation once saw crowds of up to 200 flock to the Tingwall Hall for the debates and hearings.

Mr Smith, who contributed in the 1979 debate The Shetland movement is going nowhere, highlighted a New Shetlander article from years back which described it as a “debate in duffel-coats”, so draughty was the Tingwall Hall at the time.

Some meetings were used to highlight the work of local authors, including, in one instance, the poet and novelist Haldane Burgess.

Numbers have fallen since the society’s heyday, however, although the committee is still busily planning for future discussions. The Althing recently began spreading out to other venues in a bid to attract more folk through the doors. Big news items, such as the Scottish referendum on independence, have come under scrutiny at the Althing and can still attract a big crowd.

“The starting point was in 1950,” said Mr Smith. It was mostly ‘live-wires’. Intellectuals who wanted to debate things in Shetland. It attracted huge audiences.

“I had been hinting for years that Florence should deposit the minutes in the archives. I was very pleased when it came. It was expensive to get the volumes rebound, but it was worth it because it means people can read it without the danger of further deterioration.”

Chairman of the Althing group, Andrew Halcrow, recalled a debate on whether Shetland was a “classless society”, in which Jonathan Wills had suggested a celebratory drink for the winners. The only question being whether it was imbibed in the Grand Hotel or the Thule.

Reflecting on the handover Mr Halcrow said: “I think it’s excellent. The old minute book was in a poor way. As Brian was saying, he has been wondering about getting it into the archive for a while. We thought this would be a good home for it. It’s a great part of Shetland history.”

Mrs Grains added: “It’s very interesting. I read them before we gave them to Brian. Brian had been looking for them for a while, but I kept them until I had finished reading them.”


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