THE influence of Lawrence MacEwen is writ large on the smallest of the Small Isles. Polly Pullar meets the legendary landowner
Bearded and with a shock of red-blonde hair, his eyes are a startling blue, and he is sometimes likened to a noble Viking. His large hands are maps of his island, bearing the lines of a lifetime’s graft, contours ingrained with grime.
Lawrence MacEwen wears oilrig-style wellies without socks, and a boiler suit. He welcomes arrivals with manners that are now seldom seen. This is a man who once climbed Ben Nevis barefoot, and who still hand milks his cow every day. He drives an ageing Fergie tractor or a rusting bike with the chain falling off.
I first met him fleetingly when I was ten years old. Highly thought of in farming circles, he would have been around 30 then and had recently taken over the island’s stewardship from his older brother Alasdair.
Sheep have always opened doors for me and led me into fabulous adventures. When work took me to Muck, despite a forecast that ensures that the Hebrides will never turn into a tourist fleshpot, I lingered an extra day for it gave me the chance to spend time with the fascinatingly eccentric Lawrence.
It was while I was helping him in the sheep fank that I realised his is an astonishing story, strengthened by a lifetime of diaries. Laced with hilarity as well as earth-shattering tragedy, it records a vital part of Scottish social history from the days of coal puffers, and flit boats, and the lifting of livestock in slings aboard Caledonian MacBrayne steamers.
Together with his family, Lawrence is responsible for maintaining this tiny island, the smallest of the Small Isles including, Rum, Eigg and Canna, as one of the most successful remote rural communities anywhere in the British Isles. Muck has been in the MacEwen family since 1896. It is a gloriously fertile island, just 1,500 acres with a thriving farm and fine native livestock, and an ethos of self-sufficiency. Jenny MacEwen’s tearoom, reputed to be the best in the west, is well stocked with eclectic crafts, many made here.
The island’s name arouses interest; the butt of countless puns and jokes – Lord Muck is one that the MacEwens are understandably sick of for they are all far-removed from this mould. As broadcaster Mark Stephen wrote: “If anyone ever gave Lawrence the manual on ‘How to be a Landowner’, I can only assume he used it to catch oil drops from his beloved vintage tractor”. The MacEwens’ work ethic and determination would put the hardest grafting navvy to shame.
Once reputed to be the strongest man in the Small Isles, Lawrence’s exploits are legendary. In his heyday he could shunt a Highland pony or a stubborn cow straight into a boat with his shoulders.
He loves Muck so passionately that he chose not to have a pier on the more boat-friendly side of the island because it would spoil the stunning view to the sea-girt cliffs and peaks of Rum. In consequence they are often cut-off when CalMac is unable to enter the harbour at Port Mor safely.
As local livestock haulier Ewen Bowman told me: “I never went to do a single thing with Lawrence without thinking to myself what on earth will happen this time? I must add that this was always in the nicest possible way; in this business I have had to deal with a lot of moaning gits. I thought, now here’s a man fighting a daily battle with the elements; he has to pay twice as much to get livestock moved and has every last thing stacked against him but I never heard him complain once. He has a heart of gold but he always appears with a great long tale of all the mishaps and things that have gone wrong, and yet is still smiling.”
There have been numerous protracted battles to bring Muck out of the dark ages, with feats of ingenuity from Lawrence’s brother Ewen. Indeed it was one of the last places in the UK to have 24-hour power when it was finally connected in 2013. Prior to that the electricity was from a generator that only came on twice daily. There have been struggles to keep enough pupils in the modern school. Families with young children are at a premium and sometimes the MacEwens advertise for new residents. Successful candidates are chosen with an island vote. Some don’t work out. The MacEwens are resolute, as are the hard-working community of Muck. There are lessons to be learnt on the benefits of benevolent paternalism and despite endless challenges this is a microcosmic example of fine leadership.
It is said that behind every great man there is always a great woman. The story of Lawrence’s long and complex courtship with Jenny, and the priceless drama of their eventual wedding on Soay, with the surprise arrival of five press helicopters is a Hebridean adventure to equal many of Para Handy’s finest.
A chance meeting with the maverick Tex Geddes one night in the Central Bar in Mallaig, led the young Lawrence and his brother Alasdair, neither of whom were heavy drinkers, well off course. And it was during the wee small hours in a fug of alcohol that Lawrence agreed to help Geddes transport livestock to and from Soay. Geddes had, with his wife Jeanne, befriended a new arrival on barren, primitive Soay. When the young laird of Muck landed he was instantly “dazzled” by Jenny Davies whose father, a civil engineer, responsible for much of the infrastructure of Gaborone, had seen an advert in the Times for a croft on Soay. He bought it, sending his young daughter there to run it.
Undaunted by the three-hour crossing from Muck, Lawrence who claims that when his mother died, he really needed a wife, crossed stormy waters whenever he could with the excuse that Geddes required his help. Even the wedding had to be delayed by a day due to a storm. The next was little better but went ahead because otherwise all Jenny’s beautifully prepared food would have been wasted – Soay had no such thing as refrigeration. It was a much-depleted party that sailed to the wedding – most of the island’s men stayed behind to unload the scheduled coal puffer on Muck. Lawrence and Jenny seem to be everyone for everyone, and all the time. For Lawrence, who was coastguard, special constable (there was but one tiny crime on the island in all his years of service), gravedigger, farmer, forester, Muck ambassador, father and grandfather, every stone on this tiny drop in the ocean has a story. I asked him why the lovely graveyard at Port Mor remains unfenced. “Well,” he says, “you know how I love cows, I have spent my life here and hope I shall die here too, and I would like the cows to walk over my grave.”
• A Drop in the Ocean by Polly Pullar is published by Birlinn, £12.99 paperback. Polly Pullar and Lawrence MacEwen will be at the Wigtown Book Festival, Tuesday 30 September, tickets £6, tel: 01988 403222 or visit www.wigtownbookfestival.com