Scottish Daily Mail
A very modern Guide for life!
From camping on Zoom to badges for mindfulness and cocktail making... how the Girl Guides stayed bang up to date after 110 years of fun and friendship
IT’S early evening in the Borders district of Tweeddale and in some homes, a Girl Guides sleepover is about to begin. Guides dressed in their uniforms log on to Zoom, the video chat platform, where they wave hello to their unit leader. They take part in a craft, perhaps making a dancing elephant costume or baking pancakes.
Then they’ll retire to their own tents in their respective back gardens, or perhaps to a home-made pillow fort in the living room, bidding goodnight to their fellow Guides over a video screen.
This is Girlguiding in 2020. There may not be unit meetings in draughty community halls or weekends away bonding over a campfire with a bag of marshmallows, but even in the midst of a pandemic, guiding is still thriving.
‘It’s innovative, it’s new and it’s not been done before,’ says Gail Fox, Guide leader at Tweedbank, Selkirkshire, and the Deputy Scottish Chief Commissioner of the Guides.
‘And yet throughout this year there have been hundreds of these virtual events going on across Scotland.’
Girlguiding Scotland has a whopping 45,000 members, making it the largest charity for girls and young women in the country.
But it has also changed immeasurably in the 110 years since its establishment.
In August, it was announced that Girlguiding Scotland was selling its beloved Netherurd outdoor activity centre, a 30-acre estate in Peeblesshire, which has, since the 1940s, been a ‘home from home’ for thousands of Guides.
Here, generations of girls and young women have camped, climbed trees, tracked animals, learnt how to start fires and chopped wood. Over the years it has become a place where many Guides from urban units, as well as the younger Brownies and Rainbows and the older Rangers, could get back to nature.
Girlguiding Scotland put Netherurd on the market as the ‘impact of the Coronavirus exacerbated financial issues’, as well as low numbers of members using the facility.
Moira McKenna, Girlguiding Scotland’s chief commissioner, said: ‘Even before the pandemic, Girlguiding was planning to set up a digital hub to provide training online, and while we know the value of being together, volunteers across Scotland are finding the online or local training options more convenient in terms of both time and money.’
Guides past and present pronounced themselves devastated at the sale. ‘Dreadful news,’ wrote one f ormer Guide. ‘ Broken- hearted doesn’t begin to describe the way I’m feeling. Netherurd has always been a home away from home.’
THE estate is already on the market, priced at a hefty offers over £1,335,000, and the funds will be plunged back into Guiding, keeping the organisation going at a time when fundraising has become more difficult than ever.
‘The money raised will be put back into adventure... it will open up new opportunities to girls,’ says Fox.
Certainly, the Guides are doing many things these days that would have been inconceivable even 25 years ago.
Gone are the stuffy skirts and starched uniforms, replaced instead with comfy Aertex shirts and leggings. Salutes and songs are used less commonly than in previous generations, with girls themselves often deciding how to start and end their meetings. The days of badges for skills such as ‘laundress’ and ‘rabbit keeper’ have vanished too, replaced by some decidedly more up-to-theminute pursuits.
Nowadays, there are badges for drinks mixologist (non-alcoholic, of course, although Fox says some parents have been known to lurk in the background, taking notes and then making their own ‘adjustments’), for natural remedies and for mindfulness. For the more politically orientated there’s vlogging and campaigning, something called ‘craftivism’ and even a human rights badge.
Fox says: ‘ We’re trying to teach them skills for the future. Give t hem an i nsight i nto l ots of different things.’
Today, campaigning and speaking out forms a large part of being a Guide. A quick scroll on the Girlguiding Scotland Twitter feed shows that this week, for example, the organisation was hugely vocal in supporting the recent move, approved by MSPs, to make Scotland the first country in the world to make period products free. And earlier this month they called for gendered toys for children to be banned, stating that they reinforced negative stereotypes.
‘I think it’s really important for girls and young women to have the confidence to speak out about things,’ says Fox.
‘For so long, women have stepped back and been too shy. They haven’t wanted to use their voice for fear of what others will say about them.
‘And I think we do need to speak out about what’s right, stand up for other people, and s t and up for ourselves.’
Perhaps the notion of campaigning is unsurprising given that the Girl Guides was founded on challenging the status quo in the first place. The Guides were protesting against their exclusion from male activities while
the suffragette movement was still tying its shoelaces.
A group of girls gate-crashed the first-ever Boy Scout jamboree at London’s Crystal Palace in 1909, dressed in makeshift uniforms, telling Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, that they wanted to do ‘the same thing as boys’.
We were laughed at, we were whistled at, there were catcalls but we didn’t mind,’ one of the girls recalled decades later. ‘We were there... part of the show.’ Baden-Powell was initially outraged, but after discussing the issue he acquiesced, setting up the Girl Guides and drafting in his sister and then, in 1918, his wife Olave to become Chief Guide.
Right from the start the Girl Guides was a sturdy, no-nonsense, ‘if they can do it, we can too’ organisation.
early badges included aviation, sailing, electrician and photographer. During the First World War, Guides helped out in hospitals and acted as messengers for government organisations, and in the Second World War they collected blankets and raised money for air ambulances.
Although at times it has been criticised for reinforcing gender stereotypes, it is nevertheless an organisation that has always, sometimes audaciously, moved with the times.
In 2013, they dropped their vow to ‘love my God, to serve my Queen and my country’ f rom their promise, replacing i t with a promise to ‘serve the Queen and my community’.
And in 2018, the Guides came in for criticism that they were putting girls at risk after introducing a policy allowing transgender people to join up.
They said in a statement defending the move: ‘Our focus has been, and will remain, providing our young members with opportunities to learn, grow and discover in a fun, safe, inclusive and legally compliant way.’
Fox, 50, came back into guiding as an adult, having worked her way through Brownies and Guides in her teens, when she found herself the mother of four children and had to give up her job as a nurse.
‘I was looking for something else to do, and the local unit needed volunteers,’ she says.
Now, 20 years on, she is deputy chief commissioner for the Guides in Scotland and says, without hesitation, that it’s ‘one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life’. ‘It’s given me opportunities I never would have had, the chance to do things I’d never done,’ she says.
‘It’s about the values and the support, stories of girls we’ve made an impact on. That’s really important. You can make a real difference to some girls’ lives in terms of building their confidence and g i v i ng t hem o pportuniti e s they never had.’
Guiding has always attracted a rich and diverse seam of girls and young women. Agatha Raisin actress Ashley Jensen f ondly recalls winning her milkmaid badge and credits the Guides with giving her the ability ‘to try new, challenging things that you may not have thought about yourself’.
SCOTTISh racing driver Susie Wolff, who in 2014 was the first woman to take part in a Formula One race weekend in 22 years, says guiding made her realise ‘ the importance of teamwork and motivation to achieve what you want’.
JK Rowling said of her first aid badge: ‘I’ve never needed to make a sling since, but I’m on constant stand-by’, and says she always thought that her harry Potter character hermione Granger would have been in the Guides.
even the Queen was a Guide, and was famously given no special treatment during her time with the group. I nstead she was expected to cook over an open fire, pitch tents and tie knots in order to earn her badges, just like the rest of the girls.
That sense of a demand for equality is evident in Girlguiding Scotland’s recent survey, Girls in Scotland. The report interviewed 500 girls and young women between ages seven and 21 on what it’s like to be a girl in Scotland today.
It revealed their frustration with ‘discriminating’ and ‘sexist’ computer games dominated by male characters, as well as genderspecific toys.
Around 35 per cent of girls aged seven to ten said they believed there were certain subjects or careers they were expected to do simply because they are girls.
Meanwhile, 26 per cent said they did not feel they had the opportunities at school, college or university to explore careers traditionally targeted at men, such as engineering and manual jobs.
There was evidence, too, that the pressure of appearance continues to affect many girls’ confidence and wellbeing, with social media being one of the top culprits.
Worryingly, 51 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 said they had seen adverts online which put pressure on them, rising to 63 per cent for those over 16.
Katie Young, a Girlguiding Scotland Speak Out ‘champion’, said: ‘There are encouraging signs that girls are determined to stand up for themselves and make their voices heard, but girls recognise we are a long way from equality.’
Back in Tweeddale, it’s the morning after the sleepover, and Fox is presiding over a camp breakfast, keeping a watchful – if virtual – eye over Zoom as the girls cook bacon and eggy bread over an open fire in their back gardens.
Covid has forced many Guide meetings and events online – with a ‘virtual unit’ being set up in an attempt to cut down waiting lists – and while it has its limitations, there are certain benefits too.
‘I know people are looking forward to getting back together and meeting with the girls and getting out for adventures,’ says Fox.
‘Nothing beats meeting face to face. But for now, this is great. And as a Guide leader, I must confess, it’s great not to have to do a tidy up after 30 girls who have been cooking.’