The death of Lawrence MacEwen of the tiny Hebridean island of Muck leaves a void as gaping as a crevasse. Muck has been in the MacEwen family since 1896. For the past 40 years, Lawrence and his wife Jenny and their family have kept this fertile island with its thriving livestock farm and ethos of self-sufficiency, afloat. As a result, Muck is held aloft as an example of a functioning remote rural community – progressive and innovative. ‘I believe in evolution, not revolution,’ Lawrence stated. His unique brand of benevolent paternalism was proof of its success.
Lawrence’s debut on the island was, as he put it, ‘unceremonious’. His mother returned home with her second baby aboard the Loch Mhor from Mallaig. When skipper Captain ‘Squeaky’ Robertson peered into the Moses basket, he commented that the peacefully sleeping babe looked ‘chust like a boiled lobster.’
Together with his siblings, Alasdair, Catriona and Ewen, Lawrence roamed the island, often barefoot. Far from the restraints of Health and Safety laws, it was a childhood dominated by the vagaries of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfettered as the wind, they built dens, slept under the stars, learned to fish, clip sheep, make hay, and grow tatties. They knew a good beast from a bad and became experts with stock. Born to farm.
When Lawrence’s older brother Alasdair announced in 1969 that he no longer wanted to farm on Muck, Lawrence was both nervous and excited. He would never see himself as ‘the laird’ simply the farmer, grave digger, coastguard, Special Constable (there was only one petty theft), forester, and fireman, with huge responsibilities. He would ensure that while he was at the helm, the island and its community must not only survive but thrive. He would ensure there were children in the school and that new residents should be vetted for suitability. Islanders took a vote on that. Muck must move with the times, embrace alternative energy, build and encourage growth.
Reputed to be the strongest man in the Small Isles, Lawrence could shunt a Highland pony or a stubborn bull straight into his boat Wave, using shoulders as broad as the cattle he bred. Yet he was as likely to tend to his new grandchildren, rocking prams while out planting vegetables or eating ice cream and playing games at their tea parties. Ice cream made Lawrence child-like.
He felt so passionate about not wrecking the magnificent panorama of Rum’s sea-girt peaks with a much-needed new pier on Muck’s sheltered side that instead it was built at Port Mor. Subsequently, winter sailings of the CalMac boat would be severely limited to the detriment of islanders.
Bearded and with a shock of red-blonde hair, and startling blue eyes, he resembled a noble Viking. A vision far removed from a feudal tweed-clad laird with his notably, large hands ingrained with the contour lines of a lifetime’s graft, yellow oilrig-style wellies (and no socks). As BBC 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; he certainly never read it.
He was a gentleman with impeccable manners who relished Open Day on Muck. His mode of transport was a rusting bike or his red Fergie that rattled along Muck’s mile-long highway with a laden transport box – sheep, animal feed, provisions, visitors, dogs or grandchildren.
Lawrence’s diaries record the days of coal puffers, flit boats, livestock lifting in slings aboard Caledonian MacBrayne steamers, and far too many earth-shattering tragedies, losses at sea and suicide, hard work and eternal weather-related sagas.
As livestock haulier, the late Ewen Bowman said, ‘I never went to do a single thing with Lawrence without thinking what on earth will happen this time? I thought, here’s a man fighting a daily battle with the elements; he has to pay twice as much to get livestock moved and has everything stacked against him, but I never heard him complain. I warned him about one Luing bull. The fiery wee bugger went straight in one door and out of the other when we tried to put it into a horsebox to be craned onto his boat. It rampaged madly around Mallaig through the old herring shantytown, causing mayhem before charging towards the railway. Lawrence eventually manhandled it, steam coming out of its nostrils. It was so tired on arrival at Muck that it lay in the middle of the road and refused to walk the mile to the farm!’
A chance meeting with the maverick Tex Geddes in a bar in Mallaig led the young Lawrence and his brother Alasdair astray. During the small hours in a fug of alcohol, he agreed to help Geddes transport livestock to and from Soay. Once the business partner of Gavin Maxwell in a shark fishing enterprise, Geddes had befriended a new arrival on Soay. When Lawrence landed, he was instantly ‘dazzled’ by Jenny Davies, whose father had bought an island croft.
Lawrence claimed that after his mother died in 1977, he needed a wife who must have the ability to ‘feed pet lambs and be adept with a hay fork’. Undaunted by the three ¼ hour crossing from Muck through fickle seas, he used excuses that Geddes needed assistance. His shyness led to a protracted courtship and numerous setbacks despite frequent love-lorn voyages. In 1979 he and Jenny finally married; the wedding delayed by a day due to a storm. That day the coal puffer was due in Muck. The men had to stay to unload it, so missing the auspicious occasion. However, a rumour spread that the eligible Laird of Muck was to wed, and the depleted nuptial group were shocked when a posse of press helicopters appeared out of stormy skies.
Latterly, like the island’s trees, Lawrence became wind-sculpted as if bent by the prevailing gales. Yet despite afflictions of age, he was pushing laden wheelbarrows and milking his adored house cows well into his dotage. His life was eternalised in my book, A Drop in the Ocean, published by Birlinn. In addition, he featured on numerous television programmes and a recent moving documentary film, Prince of Muck.
Lawrence died at home surrounded by his family. Crowded boats arrived with mourners to celebrate the successful life of a man widely loved and revered. His red Fergie tractor transported him on his final journey through yellow flag iris to a hilltop grave at Port Mor amid laments on the pipes, as the heavens opened spectacularly. He was laid to rest where his cows could watch over his grave, cudding peacefully beside him or scratching themselves on lichen-covered gravestones. Exactly as he always wanted.
He is survived by his wife Jenny, three children and nine grandchildren.
Lawrence Traquair MacEwen 24th July 1941-16th May 2022
For Lawrence, 21 May 2022
Today we travelled from near and far to be with you
one last time.
We came because we loved you.
We came to send you on your way.
We came to celebrate a life well lived, a life of achievement,
a life that made a difference.
We came because we will never see your like again.
That stretch of water, that you knew so well, was fickle.
You would have laughed at the spray, and the waves,
And wondered if the boats would come.
But they came laden with old and young, laden with memories
And how proud you would have been of your family
greeting us with such warmth as we stepped ashore,
Just as you would have done.
After the service,
We followed your little red Fergie as she carried you
one last time high above Port Mor.
And the heavens opened, shedding cascades of tears.
But we were warm for we each had
our own precious memories.
You would have laughed at us standing in the rain:
You spent your life cheerily beating weather.
Oystercatchers accompanied the laments of the pipes.
The bogs were flamboyant with gold and yellow –
flag iris, marsh marigold ––
In celebration of a life well-lived.
Your favourite tunes played softly on the accordion
as they lowered you down.
And family and friends filled your hilltop grave,
Shovelling brown earth in the rain
until you were warmly wrapped,
Your beautiful grandchildren running to help,
Laying flowers on the fresh cut turf.
Your cows and sheep will keep their vigil,
cudding peacefully beside you,
Just as you wanted,
Scratching their heads on the lichen-covered gravestones,
Just as you wanted.
Together you will watch over this drop in the ocean,
This island that you loved with all your being.
And we will hold our treasured memories
always in our hearts,
And be grateful that we knew you.
And after the feast in a hall packed with hundreds,
As we walked slowly back to the pier,
Snipe drummed their own eulogies high in the sky
above your final resting place.
In memoriam Lawrence Traquair MacEwen
24 July 1941–16 May 2022