Appreciation: Lawrence Traquair MacEwen, July 24, 1941- May 16, 2022

Lawrence MacEwen, who died at the age of 80 earlier this month. NO F21 Lawrence MacEwen 02
Lawrence MacEwen, who died at the age of 80 earlier this month. NO F21 Lawrence MacEwen 02

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The recent death of Lawrence MacEwen of the Island of Muck leaves a devasting void.

An unforgettably imposing Viking presence clad in a boiler suit with a beard and shock of red- gold hair, and large hands ingrained with contour lines, he had a distinctive laugh and impeccable manners, yet was far removed from the archetypal feudal laird.

He took over the island’s running when his older brother Alasdair left in 1969 and claimed that he was both excited and nervous at the prospect. He was born to farm.

Lawrence said he believed in evolution, not revolution, and Muck became an exemplar of the success of benevolent paternalism, a tiny remote rural community that worked.

For over 40 years, he and his wife Jenny and their hard-grafting family have kept the fertile island in excellent heart.

One of four children, Lawrence enjoyed great freedom. Alasdair, Lawrence, Catriona and Ewen all learned how to fish, farm and build, and became exceptional livestock people.

He had a passion for cows and continued keeping a chosen few in the byre, hand milking a house cow daily long into his dotage.

He was hardy but never hard. His strength and capacity to overcome the impossible were legendary, and his escapades, particularly with boats and livestock, beggared belief.

Due to a boozy night in Mallaig, led astray by shark fisher Tex Geddes of Soay, Lawrence met his future wife, Jenny Davies, whose father had bought a croft on the island.

Lawrence agreed to help Tex move livestock and instantly became smitten by Jenny. However, there were setbacks, exacerbated by his shyness, before they were finally married.

The wedding day was delayed by weather. News of the Laird of Muck’s imminent nuptials spread and the small Soay wedding party was interrupted when press helicopters appeared unannounced.

In his diaries, Lawrence kept detailed weather records. Daily accounts reveal the era of coal puffers and the challenges of loading cattle into slings from flit boats to the Caledonian MacBrayne boat in the bay when there was neither a suitable pier nor electricity.

They reveal the island’s ambitious building projects, the battles for a new school, a pier and a hall, and advertising for new families. They also record a lengthy process of electrifying Muck, finally, in 2013, one of the last places in the country to have 24-hour power. But, sadly, they also unveil numerous tragedies, loss at sea and suicide.

Versatile and resilient, the laird was a farmer, coastguard, forester, Special Constable (but there was only one petty offence), fireman, and gravedigger who found solace as he
continued pushing copious wheelbarrows of cement for new slipways and playing a pivotal role in the lives of the islanders and at his grandchildren’s tea parties.

He was ever mending and patching gale-stripped roofs, tending the excellent livestock and battling the elements, until eventually passing the farm on to his equally capable son Colin and daughter-in-law Ruth.

Lawrence loved publicity, relished the island’s annual Open Day, and enjoyed featuring on television and, recently, in a moving documentary film, Prince of Muck. And his colourful life was immortalised in my book, A Drop in the Ocean, published by Birlinn.

When speaking of his forebears, he claimed that eccentricity was the hallmark of
generations of MacEwens. He didn’t disappoint, but like many eccentrics, it added to his extraordinary charm. He was kind and generous, hugely knowledgeable and abreast of progress, and he enhanced the lives of all who had the fortune to know him.

Lawrence died at home surrounded by his family. The esteem in which he was held became even more apparent when some 200 souls arrived for his funeral spilling out of boats eager to be with the family for his final journey.

Transported by his wee red Fergie tractor to the hilltop grave at Port Mor, the heavens opened as we gathered around the grave amid laments of pipes and oystercatchers.

‘I want to be buried where the cows can walk over my grave,’ he said.

Now his cows can lie cuddling beside him and together they can keep vigil on the island that Lawrence MacEwen loved so much.

He is survived by his wife Jenny, three children and nine grandchildren.

Polly Pullar