The Althing history

The Althing Social Group was founded on Saturday, 16th September, 1950, at a meeting in the old hall at the Tingwall Crossroads and the first debate “Empty Pews! Is the Church Responsible?” was held on 11th November. Apart from a gap between 1967 and 1973, when the hall was judged too dilapidated for meetings, the Althing continued to meet in the Tingwall School until 2014, where we moved to the Tingwall hall next door. It is thanks to the late John Graham and his brother, Lollie, founder members and Secretaries from 1950 to 1958 and 1958 to 1987 respectively, and Linda Glanville, Secretary from 1987 to 2007 that the Minute Books are in fact volumes containing details of every AGM and annual programme and many newspaper reports of debates, which give a reflection of Shetland over the last half century. Florence Grains has been Chairman since 1985.

In the early days, the programme was varied. Besides the debates, there were talks, concerts, mock elections and parliaments, Christmas Anthologies and Shetland Nights, commemorating local literary figures, with a Shetland supper, toasts, speeches, songs and music followed by a dance. Since the early 80s, the programme has been confined to debates with the public voting with their feet for anything different.

Humorous debates, usually involving the battle of the sexes, draw the biggest audiences. A record audience of over 250 attended the 1955 debate “That a Crofter’s Tractor is more use to him than a Wife”, when the voting went in favour of the tractor! By 1959, however, there was a massive vote in favour of “ Shetland lasses – dey’re da boys!” In 1981 it was agreed “That Shetland Women have always Spoilt their Men” and disagreed in 1991 ”That Love is a Delusion and Marriage a Snare”. The biggest audience for a long time, about 100, attended the 1996 debate, “Better Lang Lowse as Ill Teddered”, when the motion was carried comfortably. In 2001, New Man was decreed not to be an Alien Species in Shetland, as long as he does not show his Feminine Side, according to the 2002 vote.

Courtship has had many an airing over the years. In 1954, the Disappearance of the Sporin’ Bottle was regretted but in 1963 the audience did not think that Romance in Shetland died with the Box-bed. In 1983, “That the Computer would be a Better Guide to Marriage than Courtship” was outvoted as, in 1986, was “Coortship nooadays is no what it wis wint ta be”.

Humorous debates entertain the audience but it is the serious debates that stimulate discussion from the floor. This has never changed with the newspaper articles of the 50s and 60s going as far as to name the individual contributors. Politics, religion and Shetland’s economy have been debated regularly through the years at the Althing. Post-war enthusiasm for and present day indifference to politics are reflected in the poor turn-out to political debates now compared to the early days but the voting patterns remain similar. In 1955, it was agreed that “a Scottish Parliament is the only Hope for the Future of Shetland” and again in 1996 when “the Althing supports a Scottish Parliament”. In 1964, a heavy defeat befell “Socialism is no longer relevant to the Modern World” and an even greater one in 1994 for “Socialism is a spent force”. Other debates reflect the political issues of the day, for example: “The Shetland Movement is going Nowhere” (1979); “Mrs Thatcher’s Premiership has set back the Feminist cause 100 years” (1981); “Party Politics should have no place in Local Island Government” (1986); “Green Politics are Unrealistic” (1989); “The Implementation of the Touche Ross Report will lead to Less Democratic Local Government” (1991). (The outcomes of these debates were not recorded.

Religion featured in the first Althing debate and almost annually in the 50s. The Church was not held responsible for the Empty Pews in 1950 nor in 1952 “That the Church in Gazing Heavenward has Overlooked the Earthly Scene”. In 1956, “That the Good Life is Possible without Religion” was rejected as was the motion in 1965 “That Religious Tolerance is really Religious Indifference” and the one in 1977 “That all Religion offers is Pie in the Sky”. In 1989, the vote for or against Original Sin being an Outdated Doctrine was not recorded but in 2000, “The Genesis Account of the Flood” was narrowly defeated.

Political and religious debates may have less appeal nowadays but economic ones remain popular. In 1954, the three columns of coverage in the “Shetland News” begins as follows: “Despite a wintry night, with much wet snow on the roads which ditched a number of cars at Wormadale Hill, there was a good attendance of members”. The motion “That the Only Hope for the Future of Shetland Agriculture lies in the ‘ley rig’" was heavily defeated. In 2002, the same fate was in store for “Agriculture is irrelevant in Shetland”.

In 1995, a small majority supported the motion “That Remote Areas are a Liability to the Nation” while in 2000 a large majority voted that “Peripheral Communities are Unsustainable”. It is noteworthy that that the newspaper report in 1955 stated that “one observant debater mentioned that he had never been at a debate where there had been so much agreement between the affirmative and the negative” and in 2000, “both sides had, to a large extent, drifted together and thus seemed to muddy the waters”.

In 1954, the voting was equal “That the Sea has been the Curse of Shetland’s Economy” while in 1995 “That the Fishing Industry Today is Endangering its Own Future” won the day. Topical debates of their day were: “That the ‘Makkin Wire’ in Shetland must give way to the Knitting Machine” (1954); “That Shetland should invest in a Spinning Mill rather than a Swimming Pool” (1961); “That North Sea Oil ensures a Bright Future for Shetland” (1975); “That Salmon Farming is Detrimental to Shetland” (1992); “That Shetland cannot afford its present level of Ferry Service” (1994). “Shetland should support the Viking Energy Project” (2008), which was defeated 34 votes to 29, attracted a very big audience.

At this time of uncertainty about the local economy as well as world instability, debating the issues is vitally important. The Althing provides this opportunity and continues to have a regular audience of old and new faces, expanded by interest groups depending on the topic.