New look Scottish WI mixing it up in Leith

Dawn Endean with barman Scott Leslie on the cocktail shaker. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Dawn Endean with barman Scott Leslie on the cocktail shaker. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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IT is synonymous with elderly ladies drinking tea, making jam and baking cakes.

But a new look Scottish Women’s Institute in Leith is one of a growing band of groups across the country out to transform the association’s image.

Cocktail making, ukulele lessons, trips to the brewery and speed crafting replace the traditional pursuits at the Leith SWI – and the average age is late 30s.

Facebook updates replace formal minute-taking, events take place in the pub and women can drop in and out of meetings as they please.

It’s a far cry from the association’s origins in rural communities a century ago – though the basic principles are the same.

“The group is mostly made up of people who have moved into Edinburgh who want to make new friends,” explains 33-year-old member Dawn Endean. “That’s the thing about Edinburgh – so many 
people have moved here and don’t have any friends or family locally.”

Members of the Leith SWI are hoping to eradicate the stuffy view people have of the organisation.

“The WI in England and Wales celebrated its 100th birthday this year and the Scottish Women’s Institute is going to be 100 in 2017,” says Dawn.

“Numbers have been in decline in Scotland for a few years because it’s got a reputation of being old and stuffy.

“Because of Calendar Girls and some good advertising it’s becoming really popular in England and Wales, but if things keep going at the current rate in Scotland, it won’t be here in two years’ time to celebrate its 100th birthday.”

Dawn adds: “That’s why they dropped the word ‘rural’ from the title and they are encouraging new groups to make changes to appeal to new members.

“We are quite a new group – we don’t have committee meetings, everything is done on Facebook.”

The Leith SWI was founded in 2013 and has members from all over the world – including New Zealand, Russia, Canada, Ireland, Wales and England. The president is in her mid-20s and the occupations of members include a school headteacher, PHD student and nurse.

“Not a single one of us is from Leith originally,” laughs Dawn, who moved to the area around two-and-a-half years ago and is originally from Yorkshire.

“I used to be a member of a WI in Huddersfield so I was delighted when this group was set up in Leith. I was at the very first meeting and have been going ever since.”

Every two weeks the women meet at the Cask & Still on Leith Walk – a slightly different location to the church halls you might expect members of the Women’s Institute to meet in. They always have an activity planned, which changes from week to week depending on what members want to do and who they can get to come in and share their skills.

Activities have ranged from cocktail making and millinery to clay modelling and herbal tea tasting.

“We always have an activity,” says Dawn. “And it’s just whatever people fancy doing. We’ve had a tour round a local Leith brewery, a talk from a local author, crochet and knitting, ukulele playing and we’ve got a Bollywood night

coming up.

“We also had a larger speed crafting event in June during the Leith Festival which was free for everyone to turn up to. It was basically like speed dating but for crafts. You had 20 minutes to do whatever the craft was and then the whistle would blow and you’d move on to the next one.”

At the same time as trying to appeal to young converts, the Leith SWI finds itself in the difficult position of also trying to appeal to the other Edinburgh SWI groups – which are more rural and more in keeping with the traditions of the organisation.

“We get ridiculed a little bit by some of the other local SWIs that have been going 90-odd years,” says Dawn. “They questioned why we needed one in Leith because we have lots of things here on our doorstep to do.

“We want to be part of this big group – I think we are slowly changing the opinions of the more established groups.”

Thanks to an Awards For All grant, the Leith SWI has funding to put on another large event designed to cater for all SWIs in the areas, as well as any new members.

“It will give us the opportunity to meet the other groups and show them exactly what we do,” adds Dawn.

The Leith SWI meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month at the Cask & Still from 7.30-9.30pm.