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Archives delighted to receive Althing minutes

Looking through the minutes are (left to right): former Althing chairwoman Florence Grains, Shetland archivist Brian Smith and current Althing chairman Andrew Halcrow. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

SHETLAND Archives took possession of a “valuable piece of Shetland history” when a large book, close to falling apart but full with minutes of meetings, newspaper clippings and programmes of social nights, was handed over earlier this year.

Following a thorough job of sorting all the information and having it rebound in two neat brown folders, the history of the first 30 years of the Althing Social Group has been made available to the wider public this week.

Archivist Brian Smith said he was delighted to finally get his hands on “this very important part of Shetland’s social history”.

He was joined on Wednesday afternoon by former councillor Florence Grains – who can look back at almost 30 years of presiding over the Althing – and current chairman Andrew Halcrow, to inspect the refurbished minute book(s).

Smith said: “I have been hinting strongly to Florence for decades that this should be in the archives, and I was absolutely delighted when it finally came.

“It is a very, very important part of Shetland’s social history, and it is splendid that people will now be able to come in and read it.”

A newspaper report from the very first Althing debate.

The Althing was started in 1950 by a group of young “livewires” keen to change Shetland and take it forward by debating the issues facing the isles locally and nationally.

“Starting a debating society sounds dry and dusty, but they were astonished by the huge audiences that turned out; hundreds of people came to the draughty corrugated iron hall in Tingwall where the Althing started off,” Smith said.

The first debate was held on 11 November 1950, tackling the pressing issue of fewer and fewer people attending church services. ‘Empty pews. Is the church responsible?’ the Althing Social Group asked.

Two church ministers led the opposing sides of the debate – Geordie Nelson in favour of the motion, and James William Robertson, the Tingwall minister, speaking against.

Other topics tackled over the years include the desire for a Scottish Parliament, capital punishment, women’s rights and the thorny question of whether Shetland was a classless society.

Smith shared the anecdote that after the Althing had decided by majority vote that Shetland was indeed a classless society, Jonathan Wills stood up suggesting to go to the pub – the only question being whether to go to the Kveldsro Hotel or the Thule bar.

The Althing Social Group also held well attended Shetland Nights to celebrate local writers like J.J.Haldane Burgess.

But the Althing has always been more than just a debating society; its social evening and Shetland Nights were much looked forward to social events that attracted huge crowds.

Florence Grains said she was introduced to the Althing by her late uncle and quickly became involved in the committee and until eventually being elected chairwoman, a position she held until March 2015.

Looking back she said she enjoyed the debates and the social evenings.

“There were some excellent debaters; Donald George Sutherland, and John R Smith, Andy Irvine and the Grahams, of course, John and Lollie,” she said.

“It is much more difficult to get speakers now than it was then. The committee came up with the topics for debate, and Lollie (Graham) would come up with the speakers. He just knew who was best at this and who was best at that.”

These days, the Althing competes with many more forms of evening entertainment, but it still manages to hold its place and is – depending on topic – capable of attracting anything between a 50 to 100-strong audience.

Halcrow said some of the earlier topics debated by the Althing had been resurrected in recent times.

“It is interesting to go back and see how the motion had swung 40 years ago,” he said.

“We decided as a committee that the archives would be the best place to keep this valuable piece of Shetland history, and it is great that Brian Smith was able to organise the rebinding of the minute book.

“It is now accessible to everybody who wants to come in to view it, because there is a lot in it, it is quite amazing at times and thought provoking as well.”

He renewed his appeal for anybody interested to become involved in the Althing, either on committee level or as a speaker, to get in touch via their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AlthingShetland/ 

“Hopefully we can continue for another 70 years,” he said. “We are always looking for speakers.

“It is always easy to get speakers to condemn the council, the charitable trust, NorthLink or whatever, but it’s a lot more difficult to find people willing to represent the other side.”