A Handful of Nails

Finding a way in freezing conditions

I attended an excellent conference on collaboration recently.

There were many words used, but at the end of the day, although collaboration can take our ideas forwards, there is the potential for it to be a very difficult and frustrating exercise. We should be sure of what we are talking about – how we define things – or time can be wasted needlessly. A simple phrase like “child care” will conjure up a different meaning to a Social Worker than to a parent or a Nurse. We all talk different languages – approach things from a different viewpoint.

How do we work together around and within these complexities? How difficult can it be? With basic elements in place, how complicated can we make it? Or at least, that is how it appears.

So this is an inspiring story of collaboration and engagement – but in the most extraordinary circumstances. It is a story of the Arctic and the Inuit; of survival and the consequences of complacency, of education and teaching.

And how, through mutual trust and respect, a Scotsman built a shed.


Traditionally, the Inuit were a nomadic people, who went where food was accessible. Caribou, fish or seal –it was imperative that they knew where it was most likely to be found, and make their way in that direction. They lived on the tundra in skin tents. In severe conditions in the winter, should the need arise when they were out hunting, they could build an igloo.

This state of affairs was not pleasing to The Canadian Federal Government, who decided that such a wandering people were difficult to count. The decision had been made to provide prefabricated houses for them: to encourage them to stay in one place – in a settlement. These were duly delivered and built, Thus the Inuit’s way of life changed, although they attempted to preserve many of their customs.

They were the happiest of people – only taking what was required to live – and passing on their knowledge to future generations. Into this Community a 20 year old Scotsman arrived one day. He appreciated their wisdom as he watched their ways carefully, and began to understand their survival techniques in this hostile environment.

It was accepted that he would take his share of the work: he hunted and fished and brought home food. They taught him how to skin animals, pluck birds, and jig for fish through ice holes. He learned the most effective way of preserving food; he learned where ,in summer, caribou could be found. It was here that he truly understood that a lack of food sharpened the mind. When you experience real hunger, it is essential to be accurate when shooting.

But most importantly he learned how crucial it was in this landscape to watch your back trail.  With no landmarks, nothing was simpler than becoming completely disoriented –and that was a terrifying experience. There were no hills or forests. There were literally thousands of lakes– so many that they all began to look alike after a while. All the cognitive abilities of a human being were insufficient in this vast landscape if you lacked awareness. It was critical to look round every so often and scan the landscape –to scrutinize how it would appear approaching from the other direction. That was the only way to find your way home – and making an error could be a frightening experience as thousands of miles open tundra lay before you.

Complacency was dangerous – fatal. The price of freedom was vigilance.

The Shed

He was living with an extended Inuit family of three generations under one roof, but the Scot felt that he could offer some improvement of his own. He wanted to have a shed to store all the family’s tools. This was a real challenge.

How could he achieve this with no materials and no common language?

There were no trees in this harsh landscape – winter or summer. There was the occasional bit of wood or plastic, the odd crate that arrived as flotsam and jetsam.  Nails were extremely difficult to find. They were always second -hand and inevitably required straightening.

He decided to gather any pieces of solid substance which could be put to use in the construction of a small building. Nails were carefully hoarded and straightened. His wood pile started to grow. This caused much curiosity among the Inuit. What was his intention? What did he mean to do with all this scrap wood? What benefit did it have?

He managed to explain, without a common language, that he wanted to build a shed – a building that would house tools. The logic of this plan was dismissed by many, never having known the potential of such a building. But there was one patriarch of the tribe, a man over sixty years of age, who grasped the value of what was trying to be achieved. He watched the young man in the evening laboriously trying to make these slivers of metal straight, and eventually realised that it must be an important part of the plan. One day he came to the younger man, carefully bearing a gift: a handful of nails the he had straightened by himself. The Scotsman was very grateful, appreciating the time and effort the older man had obviously given to this task.

From that moment on, they were allies. The patriarch demonstrated a keen interest in the methodology– in the hammer and the nails and the wood – in how to do it.

So gradually, over a period of many months, the Scot and the older man worked together – finding a way to construct the building.  As chance would have it, the most appropriate part for the roof of this shed arrived very early, but there was obviously a waiting time for walls……

As time went on, and week followed week, more and more parts were collected. Together they set about building the shed –with no shared language, background or culture.

Eventually it was completed. The older man had followed the vision of the young man from another country, and had learned something from him. It was a challenging collaborative effort – and it eventually was a resource for the Community.


This became the first of many sheds that the Scotsman was destined to build. No location was ever complete without one.

Was this as testimony to the first collaborative effort? Was it in remembrance of an engagement that had a positive outcome?

When pre- fabrication arrived, construction was even easier. Latterly, after many years of experimentation, he discovered how to build one and dismantle it single-handed.

But the Scot never forgot that it started with nothing – literally nothing – but a collaborative effort.  So what exactly happened?

A willingness to become a partner was demonstrated by the handful of nails.

The trust was born, and there was openness and willingness to learn on both sides.

A mutual respect for the skills of the other was an important ingredient.

The ambition to improve the facilities was a driving factor.

On the part of the patriarch, the acknowledgement of that change was occurring.

There was a persistence and determination to succeed, even without the basic materials.

Perhaps, lastly,  we should all take note: a small project, such as building a shed, could not be started until there was mutual understanding, respect and trust in the abilities of the other.

©Linda Jane McLean

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