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The history of HSS

The Humanist Society Scotland was formed in 1989 in response to a rising demand for a nationwide Scottish organisation that was open to all.

The history of free thought goes back a long way in Scotland. The earliest known group was based in Glasgow in the 1930’s and came under the auspices of the Rationalist Press Association. A separate Edinburgh Group was formed in 1956, hot on the heels of the controversial talk given by Professor Margaret Knight of Aberdeen University on the BBC Third Programme entitled ‘Morality without Religion’.

One of their many initiatives was to set up The Edinburgh Youth Homes in 1964, which cared for boys from disturbed backgrounds and which operated successfully for more than forty years before being wound up in 2005. The Nigel Bruce Charitable Trust, which founded and supported them, continues to make grants to young people in need and to other organisations around the world involved in the care of the young.

The first Scottish Humanist Conference took place in Edinburgh in 1962. Later, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Humanist Groups jointly organised regular conferences, many being held at Stirling University.

In 1978, both groups agreed to set up a Scottish Humanist Council to represent the voice of humanism in Scotland when and if the long awaited Devolved Assembly came into being. The leading lights were Alex Stewart and Nigel Bruce, the Convenors of the Glasgow and Edinburgh groups.

Although the Assembly proposal failed to win the crucial 40% of the vote and the issue of devolved government went on the back burner, the Scottish Humanist Council carried on with Steuart Campbell as its first Secretary. The Council had twelve members; four from the Edinburgh Group, four from the Glasgow Group and four nominated at what became the Annual Conference.

When in the 1980’s, it became clear there was a growing demand for a national body, a Scottish Humanist Organisation. As the Council was not open to wider membership, interested people either had to join a local Scottish group if they lived in a particular area or join the London based British Humanist Association, founded in 1963.

Many did so, but because of the differences between the English & Scottish Legal and Education systems, it was difficult for the BHA always to represent the Scottish viewpoint. So in 1989, the Humanist Society Scotland was established. Gradually the relationship with the Groups changed and as they surrendered their autonomy and became part of the Society, their members became members of the HSS as well.

We were very fortunate that at about this time Eric Stockton, a member from Orkney, started the Scottish Humanist Magazine. This has grown from humble beginnings into a very professionally produced magazine, now called “Humanitie”, which is not just an old Scots form of the word that would have been familiar to David Hume, but the oldest word in the English language for Humanism. The magazine became the voice of humanism in Scotland and led the fight for both the legalisation of weddings and an end to segregated schooling.

Ceremonies were something that crept up on the Society. Since the inception of the Groups, the occasional funeral had been conducted in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, although at the time, most secular funerals were carried out by members of political parties, such as the Socialists and Communists.

Thanks to two pioneers, by the early 1980’s demand for secular ceremonies started to grow and a few more humanists got involved. In 1987, we were fortunate to get some publicity about our ceremonies on a BBC Scotland TV series called “High Spirits”, when the first humanist wedding in Scotland was re-enacted for the cameras. At this time, it was still necessary for the couple to attend at the Register Office for a civil ceremony, to make the wedding legal.

In the early 1990’s, as demand continued to grow, we started to organise the training of celebrants. This was led by George Rodger of Aberdeen who again took up the matter of legalising weddings and - with the support of Fergus Watt, an HSS member with a legal background - sought Counsel’s advice. With other people coming on board, including Ivan Middleton of Edinburgh, we eventually won our case when humanist marriages were authorised by the Registrar General of Scotland in June 2005.

Beside Ceremonies, Education has been at the forefront of our work. The first leaflet produced by The Council in the early 80’s, under the auspices of Steuart Campbell, was “Educate them Together”. This set out our case against segregated schooling, a campaign that remains a cornerstone of our policy to this day.

During the formative years of the Council and then the Society, many issues have been discussed and taken up. The Council was very fortunate to be recognised early on by The Scottish Office as a Society with a distinct view on social and educational matters. Whilst we were only a small voice, and did not initially make a great impact, it was good to be consulted.

We considered that some issues, such as voluntary euthanasia, were better left to single issue organisations while we concentrated on what we felt were our strengths. So we pursued issues that were basically humanist, such as non-religious ceremonies and opposition to segregated schooling.

Thanks to the hard work done by very many people over the years, the Humanist Society Scotland continues to go from strength to strength. Given that in the 2001 Census, 28% of the population stated that they have no religion, there is clearly a role for our organisation in Scotland and we will continue to fight to be heard on equal terms with the religious lobby, to desegregate education and to establish a secular state.

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