Three Cheers For Lawrence MacEwen

We missed this documentary film last year, perhaps because it was not reviewed in any of the news outlets we regularly monitor. But if you click the image to the right you can preview the film for a couple minutes. You will see it is about a man who spent his life protecting what he cared about. Since that is the underlying theme of the nearly 12,000 posts we have shared on this platform since 2011, it is cued up for viewing in our home this evening.  The film came to my attention in The Economist, and the accompanying photograph is unique in the history of obituaries in that publication or elsewhere:

The barefoot laird.

Lawrence MacEwen made a tiny island prosper

As soon as spring arrived, the young Lawrence MacEwen shed his shoes. Barefoot, he ran to school down the only road on Muck, a mile and a half of gravel mixed with grass. Barefoot, he jumped among the fallen basalt stones of the dykes built long ago by kelpers, who had made a living gathering seaweed from the rocks. Barefoot he climbed the craggy western cliffs, hanging on to heather for dear life, and scampered to the top of Beinn Airein, the highest hill, to look out past Eigg and Rum to Knoydart and the Cuillin Hills. Barefoot he would stand for hours on the beach below his house, so mesmerised by the rolling tide that he could not stir until his mother called him in for tea. His feet would sink a little into the white sand, embedding him in the place.

It was a tiny place at that, not quite a mile long and two and a half miles broad, the smallest of the Small Isles off Scotland’s west coast. His family had bought it in 1896 and made a decent living from it, for its deep volcanic soil could provide fine hay, corn and vegetables, as well as grazing. Yet it was also left behind by the world and benighted by the weather, sometimes cut off entirely by autumn storms. Most residents had been evicted in the 19th century, or had moved away to softer places. By the late 1960s the MacEwens, too, were wondering whether or not to stay. Lawrence’s elder brother Alasdair, now the owner, was set on going to the mainland and making Muck a summer-only place, with holiday lets. But Lawrence knew he could never leave, being rooted there.

So he took Muck on, at 27, and for the next 50 years directed its future. He liked a challenge. On Muck, they came from all directions: from the driving wind that bent him forward, to the sea that drowned several of the island’s scarce fishermen, to the vexing logistics of driving skittish sheep and cattle into a listing wooden boat to get them to market in Glenuig or Arisaig, over the water. He took all this in his tall, loping stride. A dozen mishaps attended every scheme he fixed on; every Muck task entailed blood, sweat and turmoil; but his devotion to the island transcended everything.

This being so, he did not want to change it much. He worried about television, cars, crowds of nosing tourists and shuttered second homes. On the other hand, visitors meant income. He struggled with this dilemma. Under his aegis there was only one tiny hotel, built by his younger brother, in the single settlement at Port Mor, along with a tea-room selling his wife Jenny’s wonderful cakes. Those would be baked at dawn, while the fitful generator was on; reliable electricity did not come until 2013. There was still no pub, post office, general shop or even post box. No church either, though in the tiny graveyard lay the ruins of a chapel. Nor, still, was there an easy harbour, because to build one on the best site would have spoiled the glorious view of Rum and Eigg. And the population, as for decades, still hovered around 40 souls…

Read the entire obituary here.

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