Rally cry as Rural opens its doors to new members

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The Rural is coming out of Covid with a rallying cry for new members to join its institutions.

With 14 institutes across Argyll, from Appin down to Southend by Campbeltown, boosting its women-only membership is much on the mind of Brenda MacLeod – fourth-time president of the Scottish Women Institute’s (SWI) Argyll Federation.

It was thanks to her farmer husband that she join the SWI almost 40 years ago, discovering a world of friendship and learning new skills that still keep on coming.

Appin Rural centenary celebration at the Manor House
Fun and games with The Rural
Showtime at The Rural
Handicrafts are just some of the activities Rural members enjoy
Painting stones at The Rural

There is much more to it than making the perfect scone or knitting a cosy hat, says Brenda. It is a community where women can have fun and make friends while learning, sharing and socialising together. Raising awareness of issues affecting women and campaigning to influence government is also on the priority list.

‘My husband’s mum had been in the Rural, that’s how I got into it. I didn’t know many people when I first came to Appin and was on the farm by myself a lot. I think he wanted me out from under his feet and thought it would be a good way of me meeting others. My first time away in Oban at the Rural and he went and broke his leg!’ said Brenda.

A lesser woman might have taken that as a bad omen but Brenda was not put off and soon was volunteering for various roles with the Rural that took her from village to regional and national levels of officialdom.

‘Suddenly I wasn’t just Willie’s wife or the children’s mum – I was me!’ said Brenda.

Although the SWI no longer has a central council to govern it, there are trustees and now Federation Commitees for homeskills and handicrafts, education and finance.

Each year there is a central AGM but otherwise area federations are run independently with their own a president, treasurer and vice-president as honorary posts – only the secretary gets paid.

‘We’re not just about making jam – we still make it, of course, but there’s lots more to us than  that. While we have our traditions, we also want to move with the times. We know it’s important to attract new members to keep us fresh,’ said Brenda, who is already working with others on the Federation’s show for next year at the Corran Halls.

‘We’re hoping it will be third time lucky after Covid. After all that extra time to perfect our skills it should be a really impressive show!’ she added.

A programme of demonstrations, speakers, classes and competitions brings plenty of variety throughout the year. One of Brenda’s speciality subjects is microwave cooking – even though she has a Rayburn at home. Although it might horrify some of the earliest Rural members, the lemon curd you can ping up in just five minutes would soon win them over, she says.

In Argyll there are 270 members, the oldest are in their 90s, some are in their 40s and the rest are mainly in between.

‘Some institutes manage to attract younger members. We don’t seem to do that here in Argyll. I don’t know if it because we are in more remote areas and it takes more effort to get to meetings than for those living in towns. Some meet in pubs and restaurants whoever will let them in! We don’t have quite as many options as that here.

‘Any woman can come along and join us, any age but it is women-only – it’s been to court to make sure we can still say that! Our retiring chief executive is a man – Raymond Pratt. He has done a lot of modernising and there have been changes. I think personally he has been good for us,’ said Brenda.

The new CEO taking over in December is Diana Cooper. ‘We’re hoping she will be equally dynamic,’ said Brenda.

Created by women for women in 1917, the Rural is definitely not beyond having its adventures and that could include starting up meetings for young members called the the Junior Dippers – something that Brenda would like to see happen in Argyll to bring on the next generation.

Her own adventures with the Rural have taken her to plush garden parties  and receptions at Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood, and a couple of trips to London – she was also shortlisted for a TV show. She didn’t quite make the screen herself but Southend’s Elizabeth Semple did – her clootie dumpling was a hit with viewers.

Interested in joining? Email Brenda at lurignish@hotmail.co.uk or call her on 01631 730365 to find out about your nearest meeting.