By Karen Carruth

Linda Retson is the current president of the Scottish Women’s Institute (SWI), working towards stepping down in May 2020, after three years in office. We meet to chat about her time as president, the challenges the institute faces and the highlights of her tenure.

Let’s talk numbers

“The numbers are looking healthy, with just under 14,000 members at the moment. We have 634 institutes and 31 federations. As you know we are an ageing organisation, so we lose numbers at one end, but happily we are picking up numbers at the younger side of things. Across 2018/19 we had around 580 new members which is encouraging.

To rural or not to rural

I think people have moved on from the name change, I hope they have. For the more traditional institutes nothing has changed, it just made things easier for those that wanted to modernise. Some institutes have embraced the changes (in name and constitution) it has allowed them to encourage more members to join, to introduce more modern topics, it is important to remember that we can’t just stand still, we have had to evolve. For most people it will always be ‘The Rural’ as that is what we grew up hearing, “Mum is off to the rural,” it’s our pet name and that won’t change.

Part of the thoughts behind the changes came from when we would go to promotional events and we often heard, “The rural is just for country women,” and I would say, “No, it’s not.” There was this idea that the Townswomen’s Guild was for town ladies and the rural was for country ladies.

In 1993 a Scottish Government report suggested we drop the word rural, and in 1996 a survey found that younger respondents felt the word rural should be dropped. Just a point to add, the first meeting of the women’s institute in Scotland was at Longriddry in 1917, and it was called the Scottish Women’s Institute, the word rural wasn’t added for another six years.

The name change really hasn’t changed anything in the day to day running of the institute, we still hold the same values, but a compromise was needed to be more inclusive to new members.

Is the SWI as relevant as it once was?

Definitely. The SWI is still a place to create, learn, talk and have fun, and that will never change. Those values never go out of fashion. The younger generation seemed to have missed out on learning some of the craft skills we learned at school, so that is something that the younger members enjoy learning from us, and likewise, the older members can learn so much from the younger generation. I often hear about how much help they are getting with their social media channels etc from the younger members.

Some of the institutes have changed their meeting times to afternoon or mornings, which really helps some of the older ladies who don’t want to travel in the evening. Whatever works for them is good.

What did you set out to achieve?

I wanted to grow the organisation, expand our network, and to help groups just starting up with the reorganisation, and I was very keen to help start a youth group. Over the past three years I’ve helped see through the changes during the centenary, and I hope, helped to modernise the institute.

We now have five youth groups running which are called Junior Dippers, aimed at girls between the ages of P3 and S3, which gives them the chance to bake, do crafts, and we have had some drama and singing as well. I’m hoping that even though we may lose them for a few years after S3, they might come back to us a little later on in their life.

I would like to see the Junior Dippers clubs expand, it’s a terrific idea. Some of the girl’s mums have shown great interest on the back of it. I had great ambitions to have one in every federation, but I’ll continue to keep trying to encourage them.

Our core programme is still very strong, we offer a lot of different sports and activities, and we add to them often to keep them fresh and appeal to new or younger members. We are in talks with Netball Scotland to introduce walking netball, which looks like great fun for all ages. We are always evolving.

Over my three years I’ve tried my best to visit every one of the federations, and I’ve just four left to get to. I have to say that I’ve received so much hospitality and friendship on my visits, it’s been a joy.

What are the issues members feedback when you visit?

To be honest, I don’t get too many complaints, but when I do, it still goes back to the changes, why was it done? The majority of members are positive, they realise we couldn’t stand still forever.

Levies are always an issue. Some members feel they are too much. I think we get great value for our levies. Members are asked to pay a National Levy each year to HQ which at present is £23. Some federations take maybe £5 per member, and then you have your institute subscriptions, but that gives members access to country dancing, choirs, bowling, golf, there is too much to list, on offer, and almost all of that is subsidised for members.

In my own institute, our subs are £35 a year, we meet nine times a year, and by my calculations that is £3.88 a meeting. For that £3.88 I get access to all the SWI information, have access to all activities, I hear a speaker, or watch a demonstration, I get tea or coffee and great friendship. I doubt I could buy a decent a cup of coffee for that £3.88 in the city.

The other issue I often hear is that a small minority have an issue with HQ in Edinburgh. I think if they came to Edinburgh and spoke to the staff they would see that all they are trying to do is what is best for the organisation. The people who stand for the committees work so hard. I feel that those that complain probably wouldn’t come forward and sit on a committee and have their voice heard.

The role of HQ is to deal with the admin. The members are elected onto committees and make all the decisions. I would like to stress that HQ makes no decisions whatsoever. And neither does our CEO, Raymond, who often gets a hard time, his only role is to carry out the wishes of the committees. Institutes feed in to the committees and it is these elected members who make the decisions.

Upcoming changes

We used to have a central council (or board), which was 55 members. As you can imagine, getting 55 people to make a decision was difficult. We are reducing the board to 10 members, but we still have our standing committees. we will also change the way we elect them. It used to be you were on the committee and you could do another three years but only on another committee. Now we are asking people to volunteer for the committees and there will be a selection process, so that means that if I wanted to go on to handcrafts & homeskills, because that’s what I’m interested in, or the education committee, if that is what I am interested in, then we hope we will be encouraging the right people on to the right committees.

The board will be selected by application and interview, and we are hoping to get people with the right skills on the board, they will be selected on their knowledge and skills, cutting down to a board of 10 is cutting expenses greatly. It will be much more manageable. Decision making will be quicker and easier, but they will still be taking on the wishes of their members which they will be able to feed into the board.

Members have to put themselves forward or be nominated for the standing committees. There are selection panels in the areas who will decide from the applicants who will sit on the committees. It is up to the federations to encourage their members to go forward for the various committees and the board - any member can apply. For the board they have to have a proposer and seconder. If people are worried about not having representation from their area, it is up to them to encourage their members to come forward.


I think we still have something of a stigma of jams and gingerbreads, the typical view of old ladies knitting. We are not a bunch of old ladies, we have many young members and some fantastic young institutes that have started up with their own ideas. The Dean Divas in Aberdeenshire, are a fantastic young group, they have book blethers, and craft groups. Baldernock, in Dunbartonshire, are another great young group.

Overall there are a lot of institutes that have young members coming in. Deans Divas are changing it slightly to do it their way, which is great, and some of the more traditional groups are modernising, having gin tasting rather than the more traditional crafts etc.

I would love to get rid of this ‘old’ image, I joined when I was 21, and I’ve loved it from the beginning. And let me tell you some of our most elderly members are very outgoing, and are taking part in all sorts of activities.

What’s on?

We have our summer schools, weekend schools, the next one is in the borders in July. All the information about what is on can be found on the website, and in the magazine. The magazine has changed for the better, but it seems to be like marmite, some love it, some hate it.

I would love to see more people reading the magazine, it really has everything you need to know, and if we didn’t have it, those that love it would miss it greatly.

We have a terrific range of activities going on, I would just say get out there and get involved or if you just want to go to the meeting for a cuppa and a chat, then that’s fine too, there’s something for everyone, young and old.


I’m guessing you are going to ask about the losses at the Handcrafts and Homeskills conference this year, which was held in Aberdeen. There were complaints that the conference ran at a loss. Which it did, and I can explain why. First off, the funds for these events are ringfenced, it has no impact on our general fund.

We have to book these events so far in advance, and we don’t know how many members are going to turn up at the event. This year the numbers were down, unfortunately, but that doesn’t take away from the event being fantastic and the Aberdeen ladies did a tremendous amount of work pulling it together. If members don’t turn up to support the event, then it won’t make money. It was still a fantastic showcase, with entries from all over Scotland.

This is not the first time that an event has lost money. People ask why don’t you have it at the weekend, but venues are so much more expensive at the weekend, but it is something that we are always looking at. That is very much on the agenda with the new board and committees to discuss. If we want new members, then we will have to try to accommodate the needs of as many members as possible.

Looking back

I am sad it is nearly over. It’s been a total joy, one of the best times of my life I would say. I’ve made friends throughout the whole of Scotland, lifelong friends. I will miss it dreadfully. It does feel busier than a full-time job, I’ll say that. It will be nice to have a bit of my life back again. I did do other things before I took up the post, a lot of craftwork and floral art and I haven’t done much of that for three years, so I look forward to getting back to it.

The next president, Anne Kerr, will have her own ideas, and I would say to her, believe in yourself and what you want to achieve and don’t let anyone stand in your way!!

In my three years, we have made great progress with a new constitution being adopted, we have now got a member’s database which we struggled to get, and this is now allowing us to progress to becoming a SCIO which will safeguard our trustees. We looked at the core programme to improve on it for a younger generation coming forward. This will also eventually include offering SQA’s to members and non members.


The SWI is all about friendship, I had my motto as friendship, fun and service. Friendship and fun go together and we all serve our communities. A major positive is that the younger generation are loving what they are seeing, they love learning from us, or improving what they already know, and they are bringing their own ideas which, in the majority of cases, the membership is happy to accept. They are the future of our organisation.

I do get despondent that people won’t take office. They shy away from being on committee, I would say that none of the jobs are onerous. I know that in a lot of cases they have all done it time and time again, and newer people are not quite ready for it.

Nowadays they don’t really need a committee as such, they do need a treasurer to look after the finances, but they can share the other jobs. Get involved, have fun, that’s what we are all about.

Highlights of last three years

I’ve had such hospitality and friendship as I’ve travelled around the country. But a few highlights: Addressing dignitaries and members in the great hall in Edinburgh Castle at end of the centenary year was something special.

I represented the SWI at the Association of Country Women of the World, (ACWW) in Sydney, where the world conference was held.

I was invited to represent SWI at the ACWW offices in London to meet Queen Azizah of Malaysia, she is a great supporter of ACWW, coming over to London on her first state visit to UK, she was asked what she wanted to do while here, and she wanted to meet members of the ACWW. (ACWW is worldwide, and all member of the SWI are affiliated to them. Our members are automatically members of the ACWW, but a lot of people don’t realise that.)

We have been given the honour of hosting the next European Conference in Glasgow in the Golden Jubilee Hotel in October. There is a lot going on that people maybe don’t realise, and the good thing is it is all in the magazine, I would encourage our members to have another look at it, I think they are missing out on a great read.