Lawrence MacEwen, the barefoot Laird, died on May 16th, aged 80. Some lives deserve to be recorded for history, and Laird MacEwen’s is, in my opinion, one of them. His story in The Economist, this week, caught my attention.
Laird Lawrence MacEwen’s domain was the smallest island off the Scottish West Coast. It measures almost a mile long, and two and a half miles wide, and goes by the enchanting name of Muck. Its closest neighbours are Eigg and Rum, both of which are close to the diminutive Muck.
Lawrence took on Muck at the age of twenty-seven and remained as Laird for the next fifty years. He even starred in a documentary film made by Cindy Jansen, a Dutch film-maker, which was titled “The Prince of Muck”.
Every Muck task was a challenge, but Lawrence reveled in them all: The driving wind that bent him forward; the sea that drowned several of the island’s few fishermen; and the almost impossible logistics involved in driving skittish sheep and cattle onto a listing fishing boat to get them to market in Glenuig or Arisaig. Blood, sweat and tears were a daily reward for his devotion to the island.
He worried about television, cars, crowds of nosy tourists, and the prospect of shuttered second homes of absentee owners. Lawrence, and the forty additional souls that made up the total of Muck’s inhabitants for decades, struggled with no pub (one might ask how that was possible in Scotland!), no church, no post office (not even a postbox), and no general shop. Winter storms cut the island off, sometimes for weeks at a time. Yet Lawrence never wavered in his commitment to his island and his flock of cattle, sheep, and people, probably in that order.
The center of his philosophy was the island’s nursery/primary school, and he worked hard to keep it going, even when the attendance shrank to one pupil on occasions. He believed that the grounding those children received in the love of nature and a simple life would forever influence them, even though they had to leave Muck for secondary school, and further education. The school also had a secondary community function. It was the only building big enough to hold the population of Muck for social activities.
Lawrence always appeared at these functions, often barefoot, to enjoy the company, and to hand out his wife’s tea and scones. In fact, he never appeared to act like a Laird at all. Always willing to shovel gravel or cement to help a neighbor and become passionately involved in the endless discussions about a new pier for the island, which were always put to a democratic vote: The pier was never built because the only feasible location would have spoiled the view of Eigg and Rum.
Lawrence’s passion was his cattle (40 red Luing) and his sheep (600 mostly dark-fleeced Jacob-Cheviots. However, the cattle came first. He would stand for long moments scratching and enchanting them, while he recited one of the scores of poems he learned as a boy: “She neither smiled nor kissed him/because she knew not how/for he was only a farmer’s lad/And she was a fine Luing cow”……………………………..!!
When Lawrence’s son took over, the island gradually entered the outside world: A fish farm, wind turbines, a luxury hotel, even WiFi, arrived. Lawrence slowly came to accept these changes, yet his vision for his future remained the same: In that vision he lay in a little, unfenced graveyard, under the good Muck earth, while his cows wandered over him, gossiping to him as he had to them, and he was barefoot.