For Home And Country: the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute in East Lothian

Margaret E Morrison

Many changes have occurred in East Lothian since the death in 1946 of Mrs Catherine Blair, who founded the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes in 1917. A farmer’s wife at Hoprigg, Macmerry, she had a great understanding of the life and work of women in a rural environment: she fully believed in the importance of the individual and the value of the human personality. On this premise she built the foundations of the SWRI, and we owe her much.

Institutes in the Locality

In 1945, many people in East Lothian were employed on farms, also in mining & fishing. The monthly meeting at the local WRI was an important part of women’s lives, and the meetings gave women an interest and outlet that had previously not been available to them. During the 1940s and 1950s, Institutes enjoyed a talk or slide show, given by companies such as Calor Gas, or a demonstration in poultry trussing or craftwork; entertainment, often by local concert parties, also played an important part of the evening’s programme. Canning of fruit was part of the summer programme, and rose hips were collected; whist drives raised funds for the many charities supported, and the monthly competitions were well supported. Eggs were collected for local hospitals, and collections made for the local RNLI and for the District Nurse; hospitals too were strenuously supported. Craftwork and cookery has always been associated with the Rural, and the importance of handing down these skills remained a major part of the Rural ethic.

Each local Institute had a Committee headed by a President. Over the years the format of meetings changed little, but the subject of talks and demonstrations altered with the times.


From the mid 1970s, Institutes held a yearly golf and outdoor bowling competition, the winners going on to compete at National level. In 1985, Mrs A Taylor presented a Trophy for each sport, to be competed for annually.


Dunbar, Prestonkirk, Stenton and Crossroads WRIs had active drama groups, Dunbar winning a National Award on five occasions.

The Federation

All Institutes fell under the wing of the East Lothian Federation; its purpose was to liaise between Headquarters in Heriot Row, Edinburgh, and the Institutes; to organise rallies and demonstrations; and to secure mutual cooperation and help. The Constitution set out in 1922 was revised three times by the end of the period. The Federation consisted of a Chairman, three Vice-Chairmen [to 1996] then two; two Central Councillors and one Housewives & Handcrafts Representative; an Hon. Secretary, Hon. Treasurer and Press Secretary completed the team. From 1993 there were two Federation Meetings per annum; a Newsletter was sent to Institute Secretaries in March and October. Members from all Institutes could attend the June Summer Rally and the December AGM, but only one member per Institute was entitled to vote.


Institutes could put forward a strong conviction or grievance they believe ought to be discussed nationally; after being seconded, proposals went forward for debate at the National Conference. Several were subsequently carried unanimously by Conference – often relating to local hospitals and care within the community.


Year No. Year No. Year No. Year No.
1945 893 1947 1244 1948 1491 1953 1481
1955 1455 1959 1096 1960 1191 1961 1136
1963 1197 1967 1344 1968 1464 1984 918
1985 820 1990 610 1993 521 1996 498
2000 427

It will be noted that from 1980, membership declined. This was due to several factors, including the movement of both the agricultural and mining populations away from the area, and many women being in full-time employment.

Federation Levy

In 1945 there were 21 Institutes in East Lothian; each member paid a Federation Levy of 1/1d, with an Affiliation Fee of 2/6d. By 1979 the levy was 30p of which 25p went to HQ. By 1988 the fee was £2.00, with £1.80 going to HQ, rising to £5.50 in 2000, with a Central Council levy of £3.95 inclusive.

Input into Local Government

In the past, the East Lothian Federation SWRI had a representative on the board of East Lothian Youth Council. A Council of Social Services was set up in 1973 under Local Government Reform, taking over some of the services offered by the WRI and other charitable organisations. In 1974, a Rural representative sat on the Council of Social & Leisure Education, and there was also a Rural representative on East Lothian District Health Council until that ceased in 1991.


Fund raising was always a major part of Rural activity; in 1967/1968, three Guide Dogs for the Blind were subscribed. In the Year of The Disabled, 1981, East Lothian Rural members raised £3,900 for local hospitals and Arthritis Research, knitted blankets, and bought zimmers for hospitals. In 1992 money was collected to purchase five Spenco mattresses for hospitals; MacMillan Cancer Relief benefited by £1,753 in 1996. Garments were knitted for Bosnia and gifts sent for Kosovo refugees. CHAS (the Children’s Hospice Association, Scotland), Marie Curie and the Red Cross, were amongst some of the many charities supported by individual Institutes. In 1994, the Inland Revenue officially recognised the SWRI as a Scottish Charity, and so each Federation was thus given a tax reference and Scottish Charity number.


These were always been offered to members willing to learn a new craft, and each year members could learn one or two new skills. Several members took proficiency tests and gained distinction. Drawing and painting; cookery and cake icing; sweet-making; public speaking; metal threadwork; quilting and canvas, and bead and cane work have all been taught at one- or two-day schools.

Royal Wedding Gifts

Our more skilled embroiderers participated in sewing for several royal occasions; their work was displayed at HQ. Specific input from East Lothian included: for Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960, one member embroidered a placemat as part of a set from the SWRI; in 1972, Aberlady members sewed stool tops for Holyrood House as a Silver Wedding gift to the Queen and Prince Philip; in 1986, Mrs Ballantyne, Dunbar embroidered a placemat for the Duke and Duchess of York. Stool tops were returned from Holyrood about this time to be repaired by eight of our members.

Rallies & Shows

There were no Rallies or Shows at Federation level between 1939 and 1953. The Housewives’ Guild & the Handcraft Guild held separate shows of work until 1990. The Housewives’ Guild & Bulb Show was occasionally held in North Berwick and Dunbar as well as Haddington. In 1964 there were 552 competitive entries, in 1970 – 694 entries. At the East Lothain Agricultural Show, some Institutes entered the Community Class (usually 6-8 ladies participating), and individuals entered Open Classes.

The Royal Highland Show

The Show was an ideal shop-window for the farming community. It gave each Federation the opportunity to display crafts and baking, both on a sales stall and with demonstrators displaying their crafts, latterly in a marquee in the showground. East Lothian co-operated with two other Federations, and in 1955 their profit from sales of baking and crafts made by members, after division, was £53. They took part in 1963, 1973, 1983 and 1993 when the profit was £1646.

In 2000, the SWRI in East Lothian was still in good heart and held to the concepts laid down by Catherine Blair so many years before; it looked forward with confidence to the next fifty years, ready, as always, to meet inevitable change.