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Features / Herra hall has new lease of life as UK’s most northerly men’s shed

Dr Mike McDonnell and Graham Stiles in the Whaalfirth Men's Shed. Photo: P. Johnson/Shetland News

A PROJECT which offers males over the age of 18 a workshop and meeting place has been opened in Yell, where its useful limitations are essentially the scope of the imagination.

The Whalefirth Men’s Shed became a registered charity about six week’s ago and its legal ownership of the Herra Public Hall, where it is based, should be secured by the end of the year.

With an already healthy membership of 27, it is hoped the men’s shed presence at the Yell Show on Saturday will further boost numbers.

The project is the brainchild of retired Yell doctor Mike McDonnell and retired manager of the Nordalea and Isleshavn care homes Graham Stiles, who had been kicking the idea around for the past few years, initially while he still worked in the public sector.

Part of the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association, the Whalefirth shed, or Whaalfirth as it is spelled on the door sign hand crafted by Mike, is intended primarily as a social focal point whose functions are very much a work in progress and can be whatever the members decide.

Graham said: “In my day job, about six or seven years ago, I was looking to re-develop services in the North Isles and I was looking for a solution for care in Yell.

“Men are hard to reach because our day care is very much aimed towards the female of the species, so to speak, and it seemed like a great idea.

“I explored that at the time but did not do a great deal about it and Mike saw the possible need for something like that here. So between the two of us, we kind of hatched the plan.

“It’s grand to be able to give something another life.”

The pair decided to set up a steering group and things snowballed from there, with the need to establish as a charity paramount. Consideration of various locations for a men’s shed led them to approach the Herra hall committee as the best option.

The Whaalfirth Men’s Shed has taken over the Herra Public Hall. The building needs a complete overhaul. Photo; P. Johnson/Shetland News

The hall had gradually fallen into disuse, with the final straw being the departure of Lancaster University environmental researchers who had hired it throughout the summer for their environmental studies.

So the state of the hall, which had been disused for several years, was the prime consideration, as it was only two or three years from a “point of no return” according to Mike.

He said: “When we took it over there was lots of things needing immediate attention, least of all the plumbing. Graham sorted all that out. The main hall in the meantime, one side we envisage will be for arts and crafts mainly, and the other for light joinery.”

“All that”, as well as the plumbing, meant the conversion of the women’s toilet into a meeting room/office complete with recycled comfy seats and the fitting of the kitchen with recycled units from the old AHS home economics department, which gives it a distinctive chemist’s shop look.

Handily, Graham used to be involved in the building trade as a contracts manager.

He said: “We have been very fortunate. We have achieved a great deal in the last six months because the hall was pretty much very unloved.”

The Anderson High School also provided the worktops that line either side of the main hall and there is a central “island” of tables that can be shifted around to suit.

It is also planned to convert a storeroom at the back of the stage into a workshop with an enlarged exterior door for handling bigger projects.

Graham Stiles and Mike McDonnell with Mike’s hand crafted door sign. Photo: P. Johnson/Shetland News.

The leaking roof ridge had to be sealed, but Mike says that the refurb, of necessity, has been done somewhat back to front. The old corrugated iron structure moves and leaks and the plan is for the old cladding and roof to be torn down and replaced with insulated timber cladding and Planwell roofing.

The whole job could cost an estimated £40,000 to £60,000 depending on the amount of voluntary labour. Ownership of the building and being registered as a charity means the men’s shed will be eligible for a wide range of grants.

A Whaalfirth Men’s Shed picnic bench. Photo: Graham Stiles

Mike added: “We are hoping now to be able to tap into external funding to tackle the exterior, but so far we have only had a modest grant from the community council, which covered the immediate overheads of heating and lighting in the meantime.

“In a piecemeal way we are always on the lookout for bits and pieces of equipment.”

The shed bought a wood turning lathe with money raised by the sale of picnic benches and has acquired various power tools as well as donations of sundries like screws and fittings.

Hitherto funds have been raised by the sale of Mike’s own paintings and two-dozen picture frames and picnic benches crafted by the shed members. The SIC very helpfully gave the shed a contract to build and install 10 such benches at strategic locations around Yell.

Other earners are fitting out a garden shed at the Mid Yell School and making signage.

Mike said: “The good thing about that is it gives us some confidence about covering running costs and overheads in the future.”

It is estimated that annual running costs will be about £2,000, which the pair feel can comfortably be met by the sale of items and hiring the hall to various community groups; as there appears to be plenty of interest.

The men’s shed has been in talks with the Yell Arts Group and the Shanty Yell Men, of which Mcdonnell is a member, are already using it.

Mike added: “We had a wee brain storming session here at the weekend and when I completed the list of activities covering arts and crafts, joinery, wood-turning, IT, photography and drawing a skills inventory of members, I came up with about 50 different things. Learning from each other will be a big thing.”

Cookery has also been identified as an activity in demand, with a number of men expressing an interest in learning baking and bannock making, for instance.

Women will happily be admitted as teachers, but not members, of the men’s shed. Women’s groups are also welcome to hire the hall.

But the shed is really about social interaction and Graham said that the district nurse has already identified various men who might benefit from becoming shed members.

He said: “It is one of our core values that we are going to address social isolation. We know that there is a need for that.”

The fact is that Yell has an ageing demographic. Young people leave the isle, largely because of the cost of commuting to work. Incomers tend to be retirees – and that means the need for a social focal point will be growing.

Around half the present members are recent incomers and that number is sure to rise. “A men’s shed can be a bit of a buffer, and help them integrate,” Mike added.

It is also hoped that the flexibility of purpose of the shed can encourage younger members and foster “inter-generational” activities. If members wanted, a pool table could be added, for instance.

Graham said: “The main aim is for it to be an enjoyable experience. As we develop as a group we will identify which direction we want to go to. It is very much a blank palette at the minute.

“We will be able to modify our activities to suit the membership in real time. As the membership needs change, we can change.”

Looking further into the future, a polycrub could be built giving people without much land the chance to grow their own fruit and veg. Another option could be a welding/machine shop that could be housed in an old shipping container.