When a group of men got together to recreate the benefits of a typical garden shed – a place to potter in and gather thoughts – the plan was to ward off boredom and build new things.
Soon wood arrived, tools were handed in or brought from home, and skills from tradesmen were put to use to create some simple wooden planters.
But as each nail was hammered in and with every smear of paint, it became clear the men were laying down the foundations of something else: a unique and special bond.
The wooden planters were the first items created by Macmerry Men’s Shed, set up last year as a place to potter for men who found themselves at a loose end, where they could socialise and make use of lifelong skills.
Since then the project has matured into not just a lively production line where handy objects are made, but also a vital lifeline for men who might otherwise have been fed up at home, perhaps retired with little to occupy once busy hands or battling gnawing depression after losing a lifelong partner.
For among the tools and the materials, over cups of tea and banter, men who might typically bottle up their thoughts and hide feelings behind a stiff upper lip, or perhaps just not bother even going out, gradually began to talk.
“One guy had recently lost his wife,” explains Dave Dickson, 65, who has been involved with Macmerry Men’s Shed since it began last year. “He came back to the Shed not long afterwards and was sitting having a cup of tea.
“He said ‘Right lads, I’ve something to say. I want to thank you for your support after my recent loss. If not for you guys in the background helping me, it would have been even more difficult’.
“That,” stresses Dave, “is what it’s all about.”
The Shed in Macmerry was launched in April last year by East Lothian voluntary action group STRiVE with backing from East Lothian Council’s Ageing Well project and Age Scotland. It is among the first of its kind in Scotland.
Now men gather at the village hall in West Bank Road on Tuesdays and Thursdays to work on their handicraft projects, blether about the football, dunk biscuits into their tea and revisit workplace skills that have lain dormant since they downed tools on the day they retired.
While the objects they make, such as intricately carved decorative heads for walking sticks, handy shelves, bird boxes, candle holders and fishing flies, keep their hands occupied, the unseen benefits of companionship and purpose they gain are much more valuable.
Indeed, the Macmerrry project has proven so successful at bringing new focus into the lives of dozens of local men, that a new Men’s Shed has launched in Dunbar.
Acutely aware of the benefits and not to be outdone by the men, Dunbar women have launched their own version, SHEd.
“A lot of clubs for older people run pre-determined activities, but the Shed gives the participants the control of what they want to do,” says Gayle Bell, head of welfare service at STRiVE.
“Dunbar SHEd has a huge range of activities, there’s gardening, embroidery, woodwork, fly tying, cooking, baking and photography going on. A couple of the ladies are interested in upcycling old furniture and we’ve asked for donations of old wood and tools from local builders.
“A lot of the men at Macmerry and Dunbar have been widowed and this has brought them a new circle of friends.
“The banter that goes on is fabulous. They become really good friends, if one is ill, the others will ask how they are or go and visit. The care and community spirit shines through.”
According to Shed supervisor Dave, who lives opposite the village hall in Macmerry with wife Mhairi, the project has attracted men from all backgrounds and various ages who might not otherwise have ventured out the front door.
“They’ve worked all their lives. Some have amazing skills and then suddenly it stops and there’s nothing to do. The skills are still there, they miss the banter of being at work, but they end up sitting at home.
“Some may suffer from depression, they’ve lost their wives and are finding it hard going. Then they come here and the atmosphere is terrific. There’s great banter, we have a laugh and we talk about what we are going to make.”
Dave, who worked as a butcher at Morrison’s supermarket in Piershill until ill-health forced him to retire five years ago, says the Macmerry Shed has become a focal point for around 30 men, among them a retired clerk of works, joiners and painters, even a former naval engineer. The oldest is an 84-year-old from Ormiston, another travels by two buses from Musselburgh just to get there.
Among them is retired self-employed painter Andrew Hunt, 75, who lives with wife Margaret in Ormiston. He joined the Macmerry Men’s Shed five months ago after finding he had simply too much spare time on his hands.
“I go to the gym and I’m reasonably fit and healthy,” he says, “but I like chatting with other men and being in the company of men.
“I like turning up, paying my £1 for a cup of tea and a biscuit and having a good blether for four hours while working on a wee project. Not everyone makes something, there are some who come and watch.
“For the guys that have lost their partners, it’s a great place to have a blether and get some company.”
According to Dave, everyone benefits. “The stage in the village hall was being dismantled and we offered to take the wood which we made into cupboards.
“One woman who’d lost her husband wanted us to help take away the contents of his shed, so we did her a favour and she let us have the tools.
“The first planters we made were given to the community council. And we’re now discussing starting a wee library, building some bookstands and putting out books people can borrow.
“One guy is an amateur artist who’s shown us how to mount and frame pictures. Now there are paintings decorating the hall.”
But it’s the unique bond between the men that is the Shed’s greatest achievement.
“We look out for each other, if someone’s not been in for a wee while, someone will check they’re OK. If they’re in hospital, we’ll visit,” he adds.
“The camaraderie that’s developed among men who were strangers when this started, well, it’s incredible.”
• Dunbar SHEd for women runs from 10am to noon, followed by Dunbar Men’s Shed at 1pm until 3pm on Wednesdays at Belhaven Church Hall.
Macmerry Men’s Shed runs every Tuesday and Thursday at the Village Hall, West Bank Road, from 1pm until 4.30pm.
To find out more about Macmerry Men’s Shed, visit their Facebook page which has details of the new Dunbar projects, or visit STRiVE at www.strive.me.uk/mens-shed
Shedding light on scheme’s origins
THE UK Men’s Shed movement is based on an Australian idea aimed at bringing together men who may be excluded from normal day-to-day life because they are retired, widowed or isolated.
Built around the notion of a typical garden shed – a place which for many is a calm retreat and space for making and repairing – the group gives men a chance to find new purpose in life by putting old workplace or hobby skills to use.
While some men simply enjoy the company and experience, for others the Sheds can provide a supportive crutch as they grapple with depression, grief or loneliness.
The Sheds also provide a central point for the distribution of vital health and wellbeing messages – which often struggle to reach some groups of men – and a support network in times of illness.
Around 900 sheds have sprung up across Australia, with more appearing across Scotland, England, Wales, Finland and Greece.
For more information about Men’s Sheds in the UK, go to www.menssheds.org.uk