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Orkney Men’s Sheds: Strengthening the bonds of fellowship

Sanday Men’s Shed AGM | Photo by Sanday Men’s Shed | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved
Sanday Men’s Shed AGM | Photo by Sanday Men’s Shed | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

Men’s Sheds have become something of a phenomenon, spreading across the UK as an answer to isolation and a chance to learn new skills. Fiona Grahame reports on the difference they have made to communities in Orkney.

An ageing demographic and increasing numbers of single person households has resulted in many Orcadians struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Islander, Morgan Harcus, was reflecting on this to some friends in 2015 when they mentioned to him a growing movement in Australia – Men’s Sheds. The casual conversation led Morgan and like minded friends to set up the Orkney Men’s Shed (OMS).

Without premises the men set about locating an old building in Finstown which they cleared and renovated. Despite the popularity of the Men’s Shed it came up against planning difficulties with Orkney Islands Council (OIC) over access. After much searching and with help from council officials an empty building was found in Stromness.

On 18 March 2023 the building was officially opened to a gathering of hundreds. 

Orkney Men’s Shed provides a place where men can meet up twice a week for a blether over a cuppa and where skills are passed on from other shedders. Its success has led to other Men’s Sheds being set up in the islands of Flotta, Sanday and Westray.

Simon Brodie who came to live in Orkney after his service in the military explained the difference the OMS has made to him. Simon said:

“For me the Orkney Men’s Shed was an opportunity to go out and meet new people and to build connections after my medical discharge from the military, after 28 years of service, a bad back and a fractured mind. It was an opportunity to hang out socially, in a no-pressure environment, with other guys who had a huge range of life experiences from farmers, to lorry drivers, to race-car engineers. 

“I’ve met and become friends with people that I would otherwise never have spoken to, and we are all better people as a result of those encounters and connections.

“Being a member of a community that is focussed on service and on those around, feels very much like that military ethos of ‘service before self’ and the Men’s Shed movement really gave me an important feeling of purpose and self-worth when I needed it the most. 

“Sheds are supportive environments where men can have difficult conversations about mental and physical health that otherwise would not fit naturally into a work / domestic situation, and there’s a lot of evidence of the significant positive impact Sheds have on men’s health. So not only do sheds benefit the local community by giving back and supporting various local initiatives and organisations, there’s a benefit to the individual shed members themselves.

“A 2018 UK Men’s Shed survey identified a 96% reduction in loneliness, a 75% reduction in anxiety, and a 89% reduction in depression for those members that joined and regularly attended their local Men’s Shed. That’s amazing numbers, but also that’s life-saving changes and improvements to health and wellbeing; the same anecdotal benefits we have noticed in our members at the Orkney Men’s Shed.”

Orkney Men’s Shed Workshop, Image credit Eamonn Keyes
Orkney Men’s Shed Workshop | Photo by Eamonn Keyes

Simon’s comments on the importance to mental wellbeing of the Men’s Shed are shared by Francis Worth of the Sanday Men’s Shed. Francis, who is also a Trustee of the Scottish Men’s Shed Association, described how the Sanday Shedders transformed a derelict shop in Kettletoft into a place where men on the island could meet. Provided by the Sanday Development Trust for a peppercorn rent, renovations to the shop had to be put on hold during the Covid pandemic. Since restrictions were lifted the roof has been repaired, all the insides of the building cleared out and electricity installed. It has been a massive undertaking for the small community but the building is now an asset, tidying up the appearance of the village. 

Francis said that they had helped an elderly resident gain access to the beach by building them steps to it using reclaimed old tyres and rope. He reflected that he has found ‘great fellowship’ at the Men’s Shed, having retired now from his job as a nurse consultant in children’s palliative care. 

Although still only a small group the Sanday Men’s Shed recently held its AGM and is looking forward to welcoming more men in the island to their weekly meet ups. 

In 2020, the Scottish Mens Shed Association received £100,000 from the Scottish Government’s  Connecting Scotland programme which supports people of all ages affected by social isolation and loneliness. Budgetary constraints and changes in government priorities has affected the funding streams for the Men’s Sheds although the movement has cross party support in recognition of the part they play in the mental wellbeing of men. 

Orkney Constituency MSP Liam McArthur has been a long-time supporter of the Men’s Shed. He said:

“For over a decade now, Men’s Sheds have provided men across Scotland with a place to meet, socialise, pursue hobbies and make friends. 

“More than this, though, they are increasingly recognised as an effective means of delivering public health benefits, improving mental health and contributing to the fight against isolation and loneliness. 

“We see this first hand in Orkney, where the movement is going from strength to strength, with Sheds up and running or planned in Stromness, Sanday, Westray and Flotta. Given the impact they are having, I’m sure this is only just the start.

“All this great work requires funding and support, of course. Given the benefits we see being delivered in communities across Scotland and the strong cross-party support Men’s Sheds enjoy, government must find ways of helping the movement build on its success and allow more men access to these opportunities.”

Karen Greaves, OIC Corporate Director, Strategy, Performance and Business Solutions described how the authority was able to support the Men’s Shed when they received a request from three local charities the OMS, Stromness Drama Club and Orkney Historic Boat Society  to lease the former Herring Factory building at Garson Industrial Estate, Stromness which had sat vacant since 2012. 

OIC provided the necessary alterations and repairs to make the building fit for purpose and it was agreed to lease the building for a peppercorn rent on a ten-year basis, with a five-year break clause built in.

Karen Greaves said:

“We reacted quickly in response to community need and have ended up delivering something really quite special in a building that had been sitting empty.

“We are all aware of how difficult some men find opening up around their feelings and emotions, and the Men’s Shed offers a “meeting and doing place” for men who want to meet new folk, make new friends, learn new skills, and generally have a blether and an improved life.

“Talking is so important for everyone who is finding life a challenge but this is also a facility that enables men to engage in a practical way”.

The Men’s Sheds in Orkney continue to thrive with each group developing its own direction guided by the needs and interests of its members. Future plans include a bringing together of all four Men’s Sheds in Orkney coordinated by  Karen Greaves to share ideas and redistribute surplus equipment. There are also proposals to  establish a Men’s Shed in the island of Stronsay.