There was once a tin hut on Lerwick’s Esplanade which housed the premises of Last Ditchology – the final destination of those with equipment they needed fixed.
The hut was the domain of Brian Priest, a whizz at making things work, who is now retiring after turning 65 a few weeks ago. A tourist attraction in its own right, the small hut was later demolished and Brian, himself something of a legend, moved to work in other premises.
And now he is moving on again to tackle the mountain of broken bits in his shed, the accumulation of 20 years of projects.
Brian, orginally from Unst, has always fixed electrical and mechanical things: “It’s been my hobby ever since I was a kid,” he said. If he wanted a pushbike, for example, he would build one out of salvaged bits.
His family moved to Aberdeenshire when he was two after his father got a job with the Forestry Commission. Growing up, he said: “I blew the house fuses more than once when I was a kid, but my father never complained, he was always fixing things too.”
Brian’s father was in the Merchant Navy in the war but vetoed his son’s wish to follow in his footsteps. Instead Brian served his time as a mechanical engineer in a now defunct heavy engineering firm in Aberdeen.
Then he absconded to London, living in squats for a couple of years where his talent for fixing things was much in demand. At various times he got the water and electricity connected for the squatters. That was “all highly illegal”, but at other times they lived almost legally – in the East End he and the other squatters paid rates, and in Westminster the council “was happy enough to let you live in the houses until they were ready for refurbishment”.
In the Thatcher era, he said, politicians were desperate to reduce the number of people on the dole, of which he was one.
He found himself at college in Exeter, where he said he learned a lot and gained a City and Guilds qualification as an electronic services technician.
Armed with this, he returned to Shetland and opened his well-kent workshop in the tin hut. This was on Lerwick Port Authority land sandwiched between the Harbour Cafe – known as Lizzie’s Lodestar and which he eventually moved into – and Zetland Marine Services.
Last Ditchology operated from the premises for 19 years, and Brian regrets its demise – it needed a new roof, he said, but the harbour authorities were worried about the state of the beams underneath. He said: “It was a great tourist attraction, tourists were always taking photos of it. One group even asked me what religion it was, they thought it was something like scientology.”
Brian, still as Last Ditchology, eventually moved to social firm COPE’s premises in Gremista, where he was delighted to have a regular wage coming in. He shot to fame in 2010 when he used a large screwdriver to fix an expensive camera lens belonging to TV naturalist Simon King – the TV people were expecting to have to bring up experts from south.
Latterly Brian moved into Shetland Scrap Store, now known as Shetland Home Store, often fixing items to be recycled through the store rather than for individual customers.
Here he would turn his attention to anything from table lamps to a small portable battery-operated reel to reel tape recorder – a first for him, he had never before seen a battery-operated one.
However there is plenty he cannot fix, he said, including wooden items which he does not deal with: “If you could fix everything you’d be a genius.”
Sometimes he repairs things without knowing how. “I take it apart to have a look and put it back together and it works.” There would have been a bad connection somewhere, he said, but he would never find out where.
Electronics will always be his hobby, he said, but he will also spend more time fishing, walking and taking photos in retirement – he has just bought an expensive Canon camera. As a winter project he hopes to learn to program his Raspberry Pi (a credit card-sized computer that plugs into a TV and a keyboard), and then he plans to convert three old radio-controlled helicopters into a three-bladed tricopter.
He said: “There’s so much more I want to do.”