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UPDATED Orkney Men’s Sheds: Strengthening the Bonds of Fellowship

large group of men sitting around the room
Orkney Men’s Shed AGM Image credit Simon Brodie

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

Orkney Mens Shed Open day on the left MSP Liam McArthur and on the right Morgan Harcus who is seated
Image credit Adrian Hughes

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.”

A small circle of men gathered round in premises they are rennovating
Sanday Men’s Shed AGM. Image credit Sandy Men’s Shed

Simon’s comments on the importance to mental wellbeing of the Men’s Shed are shared by Francis Edwards 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.

Eamonn Keyes recently retired from the NHS. Active in the Orkney music scheme Eamonn, although not a member of the Orkney Men’s Shed, took the opportunity to visit it on the open day. Here he reflects on his experience from the visit:

“We live in a time when people rarely get things fixed. People buy and dispose of things and replace them if there is a mechanical problem. The ‘why did it break’ rarely comes into play. To be truthful, many household items have no fixable parts, sometimes deliberately to pursue the manufacturer’s objective of built-in obsolescence, but that does not extend to everything mechanical and electrical. Time is money, and it’s the real currency always in action.

“People work hard and fill their lives with so much there is no time to dabble or to tinker. Having a Men’s Shed opens up this possibility given that there is the accumulated knowledge of many hundreds of years’ experience of both making and repairing items, problem solving and innovation. This is a resource beyond cost and it fulfils many purposes.  

“Initially, many people suffer at the end of their working lives from having stepped out of the world of work, being part of a team and being involved with providing services and contributing to society generally. This can be quite a psychological blow, and this may also coincide with a big reduction in social contact, which is vital to ensure good mental health. From what I saw being part of a Men’s Shed can help soften that blow, providing company and giving the opportunity to be involved with ongoing projects.

“Having recently retired, the benefits of this seem obvious to me.

  • There is the ability to teach and pass on skills to members.
  • There is the ability to learn new skills, such as computing.
  • There is the ability to collaborate in purposeful teamwork.
  • There is the benefit to the community, such as in providing the large school sports equipment storage under construction during my visit.  

” The camaraderie was evident, and the ease with which members spoke to and about each other shows the success of the underlying social structure the Shed has helped create and maintain. These men have continued finding purpose, enjoying the interactions and the challenge of projects that the Shed provides for them.

“The potential of the Shed is enormous, the range of skills it encourages can only expand and be limited by the imagination of those involved and their willingness to collaborate, teach and learn.”

Orkney Men's Shed workshop with benches and tools but very neatly laid out
A place for everything and everything in its place Orkney Men’s Shed Image credit Simon Brodie

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.”

an array of photographs taken by the Men, some are landscapes others portraits, theres also a computer and desk ready for use
Orkney Men’s Shed photographic camera club Image credit Eamonn Keyes

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 4 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.

the outside of the building which houses the Orkney Men's Shed a former herring factory

Fiona Grahame

A shorter version of this article was published in the Scottish Beacon

2 replies »

  1. Someone we know once asked Mike would he consider going along to the Shed. He answered that he’s mostly at home with me. The person – who shall remain nameless! – replied…”Exactly”.
    There’s a truth there, though – it’s a place to go for various needs and reasons.

  2. I live in Bundanoon, NSW Australia, and a few years ago, while visiting my cousin in Orkney, I called in to the original Orkney Men’s Shed to say hello. The men were very welcoming and I was pleased to be there. It’s good to see the new premises and to hear about other Shed on other islands. Congratulations on all you’ve accomplished. Interestingly in our membership there are three of us with family connections to Orkney. Our web address is https://www.bundanoonmensshed.asn.au . An interesting fact about our little village is that we annually host one of the biggest Scottish festivals in Australia, always in April, and Bundanoon becomes Brigadoon for the day. This year we had around 10,000 visitors attend and something like two dozen Pipe Bands taking part. More info on https://brigadoon.org.au .

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