Lawrence MacEwen, who has died aged 80, was, for more than 40 years, the benevolent and gently eccentric Laird of Muck, a tiny, windswept, 1,400-acre island in the Inner Hebrides.
Muck is the smallest of the so-called Small Isles, with a population of between 30 and 40. It boasts a one-teacher primary school-cum-nursery (with seven pupils at the last count), but no church, no resident doctor or nurse, no shop and no post office.
It has only one mile of road, and was one of the last places in the UK to be connected to the electricity grid – in 2013. Before that the electricity was produced by a generator that only came on twice a day.
The island came into Lawrence MacEwen’s family in 1896 and in 1916 it was inherited by his father, William, a naval officer. When he died in 1967 Muck passed to Lawrence’s older brother Alasdair, who moved to farm on the mainland two years later, leaving the windswept island to Lawrence.
Idealistic, hard-working and luxuriantly bearded, Lawrence MacEwen combined the roles of feudal laird and farmer with those of special constable (there were no crimes on the island in all his years of service), part-time coastguard, gravedigger, forester and ambassador.
He was described by the Scottish radio presenter Mark Stephen (in a foreword to Polly Pullar’s 2014 book, A Drop in the Ocean: Lawrence MacEwen and the Isle of Muck) as resembling a “Viking jarl, cast out of time and into a boiler suit and wellies”.
It was Lawrence MacEwen, above all, Stephen observed, who had made Muck and its small community a success: “There is new building going on, children playing, projects being planned; a real sense of purpose... This island has managed to avoid the pernicious spread of holiday homes that has hollowed out so many other west coast communities. The land is fertile and in good heart.”
MacEwen loved his cows, mucking them out and milking them by hand in the byre, took daily cold baths as he had since childhood, and won the sometimes exasperated affection of his fellow islanders with his make-do-and-mend philosophy of life and his stubborn determination to preserve Muck’s fragile social ecosystem for the benefit of future generations.
While he was not totally averse to change (he was delighted in 2010 when the island won a £338,000 Lottery grant towards the cost of building its first-ever community centre), he was otherwise sceptical of what the modern world had to offer.
He chose not to have a pier on the calmer north side of the island because it might spoil the view to the cliffs and peaks of neighbouring Rum. In consequence Muck was sometimes cut off when Caledonian MacBrayne ferries were unable to enter the harbour at Port Mòr.
When in 2010 islanders were told by public health officials that their water supplies were not safe to drink so they would need to import bottled mineral water pending the installation of ultraviolet bacterial cleaning machines, MacEwen protested: “All the houses on Muck are served by reliable springs of a quality at least as good as can be bought in bottles.”
A welcoming, friendly man, MacEwen participated in everything from island get-togethers to children’s parties, and from drain clearance to butchering pigs. He was never happier than when hosting Muck’s annual open day, when he would proudly show visitors round his farm.
Though he had the vowels of a Gordonstoun-educated “toff”, he was in essence an old-fashioned Gaelic chief. He once found himself in the company of islanders from the more radically-minded island of Eigg (where residents famously bought out their absentee landlord in 1997). As one visitor launched into a rant about the landlord class, a barefoot MacEwen came through the door, bearing cups of tea and freshly-baked scones made by his wife Jenny, evoking affectionate laughter.
For his 60th birthday in 2001, about 60 islanders from Muck and Eigg secretly chartered a ferry to take him to nearby Mull for a party. “He was dead chuffed,” one conspirator recalled.
Mark Stephen described MacEwen as “modest, hugely knowledgeable and undoubtedly infuriating to his family” – a quality that became apparent last year when the 80-year-old laird found himself an unlikely film star.
The Dutch filmmaker Cindy Jansen had spent more than four years capturing him and his family, and her elegiac documentary, Prince of Muck, premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2021 and was broadcast on BBC4 earlier this week.
In 2010 MacEwen had transferred the farm to his son Colin and daughter-in-law Ruth and moved with Jenny to smaller premises next door. The documentary featured archival film footage showing him as a muscular, passionate young man, committed to developing his island through “evolution, not revolution”
It contrasted that with the elderly Lawrence MacEwen, still tending his beloved cows the old-fashioned way and playing with his grandchildren, but struggling to accept that he could no longer control younger family members pushing for a more modern style of farming on the island he loved.
Lawrence MacEwen was born on July 24 1941, the second of four children. He recalled an idyllic childhood, running barefoot in summer, climbing, camping in caves, and earning pocket money by collecting aluminium fishing floats from the shore or helping to carry “thrashed” straw to the “stirks”.
He was seven years old when he first saw a car – on a trip with his father to an agricultural show on Mull – and as Muck had no telephone or radios, he recalled that if an islander took ill his father would light a beacon and help would come from Eigg.
He and his older brother Alasdair were educated at Gordonstoun, where they were known as “Big Muck” and “Little Muck”. Though not particularly academic Lawrence loved hillwalking and by the time he left he had climbed 78 Munros – often barefoot.
After Aberdeen University, followed by a couple of years as a jackaroo in Australia and New Zealand, he returned home to his beloved Muck.
When his father died in early 1967 the farm passed to Alasdair, but as Lawrence recalled: “Alasdair reckoned we should either go to Australia, or make Muck summer-only. I felt rather sick... We considered selling the island. But I said no... We were so embedded... I never envisioned living anywhere but on the island.”
Alasdair subsequently moved to farm in Fife, and later in Dorset, but in 1990, tragically, took his own life. “His problems must have become too much for him,” Lawrence reflected in a diary he kept every day of his life: “A terrible blow, it is hard to believe.”
In the early 1970s Lawrence was joined by his younger brother Ewen, who built and established a hotel at Port Mòr.
In Cindy Jansen’s documentary, MacEwen cast his mind back, reciting the poetry and tide tables that he learnt as a child and reading from the weather reports he noted down in his diary every day.
Asked by a journalist in 2014 why he kept the graveyard at Port Mòr unfenced, he replied: “Well, 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.”
He first met his wife Jenny (née Davies) on the isle of Soay, where she was tending a croft bought by her father, and recalled that when he rowed her “across the bay”, he recited the epic poem Lord Ullin’s Daughter: “Now who be ye would cross Lochgyle,/This dark and stormy water?’/ ‘Oh! I’m the chief of Ulva’s isle,/And this Lord Ullin’s daughter...”
Jenny survives him with their son and daughter.
Lawrence MacEwen, born July 24 1941, died May 16 2022