Orcadian Column, 16 June 2022

The Men’s Shed movement has been an under-sung success story since its emergence as a concept during the 1980s in Australia. Based on the premise that “men don’t talk face to face but shoulder to shoulder”, the movement has provided an excuse, opportunity and space within communities for older men to come together; to make friends while learning and sharing skills.

Despite struggling to find a permanent home over the past decade, Orkney Men’s Shed has nevertheless proved its worth both to its members, the self-styled ‘shedders’, and our wider community, which has benefited enormously from the creative output of the OMS workshop.

After being invited to help formally open its Finstown premises in 2017, I expressed concern to Morgan Harcus, a driving force in the movement locally, that I had few of the practical skills needed to be a ‘shedder’. Morgan was quick to reassure me that if I could operate a kettle, I’d fit right in, as ‘tea and banter’ were as important to the Men’s Shed ethos as the ability to use tools or craft furniture.

Where OMS, like Men’s Sheds everywhere, has come into its own is in reducing the risk of isolation, particularly amongst those who may have recently lost their life partner, struggled to cope with retirement or found it difficult to maintain a social network. When we are witnessing a mental health crisis across Scotland, evident before but made worse during the pandemic, the positive contribution of Men’s Sheds up and down the country could not be more important or timely.

Following a period of uncertainty, Orkney Men’s Shed thankfully now has a more permanent home in Stromness. I can’t help feeling, though, that Finstown was almost the perfect spot for a facility that draws members from across the county. Given the role it performs, notably for those who may not have their own transport, making any shed as accessible as possible is crucial.

In that respect, I’m delighted at news that the initiative will be making its way north of the Galt. Last Friday evening, I joined some of those involved in taking forward plans for the Sanday Men’s Shed and was genuinely impressed by the progress achieved. Despite the disruption of Covid, the old Co-op site at Kettletoft has been transformed thanks to the hard work of a small, but dedicated team of Sanday ‘shedders’. Funding has been secured, although concerns remain that this could be impacted by delays in getting things finalised, including power connections.

However, this is a model that could readily be exported to other islands. Any shed project would need to reflect the circumstances and personalities within each community, but I see no reason why the benefits should not be equally applicable and valuable across each of the isles.

In Sanday, along with the redevelopment of Harbour House and the Craft Hub, the project is helping breath life back into Kettletoft, once the beating heart of the community. The days of the ferry pulling into Kettletoft may be long gone, but there is cause for optimism about the village’s potential as a gathering place for islanders.

These are just some of the points I would be making in a parliamentary debate later this week on Men’s Shed were it not for the fact that I am due to be chairing proceedings. Entitled, “Men Don’t Talk, the debate will be led by an MSP colleague from the Borders, underlining how this movement really is making a difference the length and breadth of Scotland.

Sadly, media attention this week will be focused on the UK Government’s deplorable attempt to send asylum seekers to Rwanda or unilateral trashing of  the Northern Ireland protocol, triggering a trade war with the EU in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Attention will also fall on the First Minister’s latest attempt to push for a referendum, making clear she is more interested in launching campaigns for independence than launching ferries.

Rather than spend time reflecting on debates likely, or even intended, to divide and drive wedges between people, it seemed appropriate to shine a light on a movement dedicated to building bridges and bringing people together. All power to the “shedders”!

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