Landlines: Organisations at the heart of Scotland’s rural community

There are contrasting fortunes at present for two of rural Scotland’s best known organisatiions.

The good news is the Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs (SAYFC) which has been pulled out of years of steady decline by vigorous action and firm leadership, some determined youngsters effectively taking it by the scruff of the neck and giving it a good shake.

The bad news is the continued decline of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (SWRI) as members die off, and the attempt to revitalise it by dropping the word ‘rural.’

The good news first. Total membership of young farmers’ clubs in Scotland, a movement now more than 75 years old, rose 8% last year to more than 3,500. Against the background of a farming industry in general where every year sees fewer farmers and fewer staff, that’s an achievement.

Part of the success is reaching beyond the purely farming community and emphasising that the social side is important, but that there’s more to the SAYFC than that. New training initiatives have been introduced, new clubs formed, and a serious attempt made to involve young farmers in national grown-up decision making with the NFU and politicians.

I’ve criticised young farmers on both sides of the border at times for their behaviour. No one who has seen some of their Highland Show antics or read social media accounts of what happens at nights at annual conferences can doubt how stupid that behaviour can be. In their defence, the same could be said of some of their elders at NFU dinners or livestock society ceilidhs.

It’s good to see young farmers enjoying themselves with their interminable talent contests while also finding time to take life more seriously and thoughtfully when they need to. Well done.

I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘the rural’ as the SWRI is affectionately known, not least because there was a time when I was cajoled into speaking to many of its meetings, from small gatherings that barely got into double figures to the pinnacle of the annual meeting of 700 or so members in Edinburgh. At every level, they were friendly and welcoming.

But the decline in rural population and alternative attractions has hit the SWRI hard. There are now fewer than 750 institutes against more than 1,100 in the 1980s. Membership is falling by about 1,000 a year and is down to about 17,000. New, younger, members are needed. True. But I’m not sure that dropping the word ‘rural’ will do the trick. Neither do many members who claim that brainwave came from SWRI HQ without consulting anyone at local level. The last I heard was a move for a vote of no confidence at this year’s annual meeting.

Perhaps that might wake up the SWRI membership in the same way as the SAYFC got a shake?