‘Deeds Not Words’ 100 Years of the Rural

16/01/20173:20 pm28/03/2017 12:17 pmLeave a Comment

This week an exhibition will be launched here at the John Gray Centre to celebrate 100 years of the Rural. You can visit the exhibition between January 20th and May 3rd during museum opening hours.    The origins of the Scottish Women’s Institute are firmly in East Lothian, and we’d like to thank the members of Longniddry SWI for their help in preparing the exhibition.

The first Women’s Institute in Scotland was established in Longniddry at a meeting held in the Reading Room of the village on 26 June 1917.  Mrs Catherine Blair from Hoprig Mains was the inspiration behind the Longniddry Institute.  She invited a speaker, Mrs Watt, from Canada, where the Women’s Rural Institute started at Stoney Creek, Ontario in 1897

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Catherine Blair with the Queen Mother

Mrs Blair, a prominent suffragette, founded the rural movement in Scotland to try to remedy the isolation felt by many women who lived in the countryside.  She was influenced by her dairymaid who complained “ Men are aye meetin’ their neebors in the stable an’ passing the time o’ day wi’ the maister but fir the like o’ me ther’s never a body tae speak tae”.

A talented designer Catherine also set up the Mak Merry Pottery believing that the lives of women in the countryside could be enriched through arts and crafts.  Among the items on display are examples of Mak Merry pottery, as well as the Longniddry branch banner, made by Catherine Blair in 1917.  The front of the banner bears the Institute’s then motto ‘For Home and Country’ , and on the rear ‘Deeds Not Words’, which had previously been used by the suffragette campaign.

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Longniddry SWI Branch Banner

The first meeting of the newly formed Longniddry Women’s Rural Institute took place on Wednesday, 25 July 1917. The invited speaker was a Miss Lumsden, who spoke on “The War and Women’s Institutes.”  Following the establishment of the Longniddry branch, Macmerry SWRI was formed in September 1917 and in December of the same year Tranent’s Institute was formed.  In 1918, Ormiston’s SWRI was formed and in 1919 Haddington’s  Institute was established.  By 1926 there were 22 Institutes in East Lothian, including one in Humbie.

As the movement started in wartime, members took an active part in the war effort, for example by conserving and preserving food, by making bandages and, in the case of Macmerry, by maintaining a bed in a French hospital. One institute even collected medicinal herbs, dried them and despatched them to drug manufacturers.  After the war, the Institutes supported many charities.  A great deal of effort went into fundraising.  The Haddington branch even had an institute pig which was fed by Mrs Porteous and when sold brought in £12.13.6d.

The first meeting of the rural to be held in Humbie was on Saturday, 8 November 1919. There were 7 ladies present and they met in the school, the meeting being presided over by Mrs McIver from the Board of Agriculture for Scotland.  A committee was formed and a programme was drawn up for the first six meetings, Mrs Skene-Taylor being elected President.  By the second meeting, held on Saturday 29 November 1919, the membership had risen to 21, and a demonstration was given on the ‘refooting’ of cashmere stockings.  By the end of that first year, the membership rose to 56, many coming from Keith Marischal and even from as far as Peaston Bank.

The Haddington SWRI ran a canteen for service personnel from June 1940 until November 1945 in a ground-floor flat on the north side of the High Street.  It opened daily until 10 pm and provided snacks, hot drinks, books and games with the added attraction of two baths which were in constant demand.

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The ladies who worked in the Haddington SWI Canteen during the Second World War

In 1967 the movement celebrated its Golden Jubilee. A reception was held at Gosford House on the 30th June 1967, courtesy of the Earl and Countess of Wemyss,   Lady Wemyss holding the title of Honorary President of the East Lothian Scottish Women’s Rural Institute.  An exhibition of handcrafts and housewifery was held in Haddington Town House as part of the celebrations.

It became a tradition to have an institute picnic but more ambitious outings were undertaken, for example British Railways arranged a full day’s outing including a sail on the Clyde for Institutes in the Lothians and Borders.

Although only 8 of the 22 East Lothian branches remain active today, recent years have seen a resurgence in membership with new branches opening in some parts of Scotland.  In a bid to modernise the organisation has recently changed its name, dropping the ‘rural’ from its title to become the Scottish Women’s Institute.  However most people know the Institute affectionately as ‘the Rural’.

We would love to hear from anybody who is or has been a member of the Rural and would like to share memories. Contact us in person at the Archive and Local History Centre, or by telephone 01620 820695, or email [email protected] .

Written by RuthF - Modified by Susan Forgie



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