It’s the SWI but less admin and more Facebook

Segway time...SWI is no longer just all about jam and Jerusalem
Segway time...SWI is no longer just all about jam and Jerusalem
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Segway racing, social media and rum tasting – not the activities you would expect from the ladies of the women’s institute.

But a modern day shake-up of a seemingly dated institution is paying dividends for the Scottish Women’s Institute (SWI), with membership climbing by over 300 in the past year alone.

The organisation has adopted a more relaxed approach and, by ditching the word rural from its name, it is now more relevant to women living in towns and cities too.

The rise in membership – taking it to 16,001 in Scotland across 32 areas – comes on the back of a decade of decline but it’s the perfect birthday present for the institute which is celebrating its centenary this year.

And as far as the national chairman Christine Hutton is concerned, the SWI is as relevant now as it was when it was formed 100 years ago.

She said: “Back in 1917, our organisation was formed to bring women together, with a vision to welcome every woman in Scotland to join us.

“We have remained a constant in Scottish life ever since and are here to educate, share, campaign, learn, socialise, build a community and, of course, to have fun.

“Having recently taken action to remain relevant to the lives of modern women living in all parts of Scotland, we are very pleased to say that membership numbers have gone up by 301 in the past year.

“This may not sound like a huge number but, after years and years of decline, this is a most positive development that shows our new-style meetings are working and the centenary is a great chance for us to remind people who we are about and what we have to offer modern women living in 21st century Scotland.”

New style meetings reflecting a wider range of interests and held at flexible times and in venues like pubs and coffee shops have been introduced in the past two years.

As well as cake decorating, embroidery techniques and floral art, meetings are now just as likely to feature gin tasting, life drawing, upcycling and ukulele playing.

These changes have led to new branches being formed, like the Deen Divas, which held its first meeting in Aberdeen in the summer of 2015.

Ann Milne, organiser of the group, said: “Our Institute was formed as part of the SWI scheme to introduce new pilot groups to try to make a new generation of women aware of the organisation.

“We started with an evening at the coffee shop where we continue to meet.

“Our first evening we had around 40 ladies present, and we had a survey of what things people would like to do and an idea of what they would like to get out of it.

“The response was to meet people and have fun which is what we aim to do.

“A year-and-a-half on, we have a paying membership of 41 and a few who come as guests. There’s a mixture of ages, with three generations of one family attending.

“We’ve done car safety nights at Kwik Fit, Segway-ing and Kiltwalk training, but, generally we don’t really do anything particularly different from the traditional groups.

“We have speakers and craft nights like they do, but we try to package it in a more fun, informal way – less admin, more Facebook.

“It’s really important to me that we are part of the Scottish Women’s Institute and not just a women’s group because there is so much skill and talent that we can share in and learn from but I do think groups like the Deen Divas are needed to inject a bit of enthusiasm.

“I think the main thing the ladies get out of it is fun and friendship. We don’t take it too seriously and it’s a break from life.”

The newer branches sit comfortably alongside the existing network of traditional groups where the focus is on home skills, family welfare and citizenship.

Combined, the SWI said all 716 institutes are continuing the legacy of an organisation where generations of Scottish women have learned life skills, arts and crafts, taken up topical issues and made friends.

But social media is also a new thread in the story.

The organisation is active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and individual institutes are using them more and more to promote their activities.

Digital media will be employed over the next few months to promote events planned for the 100th year.

The SWI is hosting its own version of Tea in the Park which will see simultaneous tea parties take place in each Federation area on July 2.

A public exhibition in Edinburgh in April is also planned and will reflect the changing times of both the organisation and society featuring artefacts, handcrafts and archive materials.

Also planned is a ceremonial tree planting and garden party; the creation of craft banners and a new recipe book featuring recipes from celebrity chefs as well as the SWI’s own demonstrators.