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Extract from A Drop in the Ocean by Polly Pullar

  17 Aug '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

In A Drop in the Ocean, Polly Pullar tells the fascinating tale of one of the Hebrides unique thriving small communities through the colourful anecdotes of Lawrence MacEwen, whose family have owned the island since 1896. In our extract this week, Polly recounts her first meeting with the fascinating laird and her early encounters with the unique island of Muck.

Extract from A Drop in the Ocean by Polly Pullar

A watercolour painting hangs above my bed. A treasured possession, it depicts a Hebridean shoreline: turquoise, black, grey and moody, a surging sea with foaming waves leads the eye to the distinct shapes of Rum’s forbidding peaks. In the foreground there is another island. Muck, a place that has punctuated my thoughts since I was a child growing up on Britain’s most westerly mainland peninsula, Ardnamurchan.

Whilst wandering at Achateny beach, looking for otters, I often sat daydreaming on a rock, gazing out to the islands as rain fell fizz-like on sea the colour of pewter, or clouds chased one another across an azure sky over Rum’s Askival, Sgùrr nan Gillean and Hallival, the nearby Sgùrr of Eigg, and the distinctive Cuillin Ridge on Skye. Muck, approximately six miles by sea from Ardnamurchan: it came and went through the weather, so near yet so far. Its name and erratic moods fascinated me.

From Ardnamurchan’s north coast, Muck’s outline is often a silhouette, akin to the shape of a melting iceberg. Its highest hill, Beinn Airein, just 451 feet, and the steep sea-girt cliffs bordering its southern coast, appear prow-like.

Other than a brief foray in my stepfather’s boat at the beginning of the 1970s, Muck remained largely a figment of my imagination. I knew so little, yet it is a fascinating place, with a passionate story. When I found myself there by sheer chance on a working mission, I lingered an extra day and fell heavily under the island’s spell and the ethos of its owners, the MacEwen family. That extra day was dismal: I endured the kind of rain that assures thankfully that the west coast of Scotland will never compete with a Spanish holiday resort. The horizontal rain seeps right into the skin, laying waste to the finest outdoor clothing on earth. And it was cold, too. I wanted to spend some time with the island’s owner, Lawrence MacEwen, a familiar name in farming circles, a man who has gained the greatest respect, a true countryman, an eccentric and benevolent character, and most importantly someone who, with his incredible wife Jenny, has been largely responsible for making Muck and its small community the success it is.

My photography work for Scottish Field magazine the previous day had thoroughly whetted my appetite for life on Muck. There had been a shoot, and an encompassing involvement from the islanders, including most of the children, something seldom seen elsewhere. The pheasant, partridge and duck shoot on Muck is a relatively new venture and the visiting guns told me that the event is unsurpassed; fabulous sport, fabulous home-produced food and great craic, so much so that they plan to make the foray an annual event. I had witnessed that camaraderie myself.

I briefly chatted with Lawrence and liked him instantly. We had quickly found common ground – a shared passion for hill farming and native breeds. Sheep have opened many doors for me, and once again they quickly did so. We passed a cheery morning gathering and then dosing and marking ewes in the fank in one of the sheds, while the rain battered the roofs with a vengeance. Following soup with Jenny, he took me on an island tour. It was not the best day for this, yet it mattered not; his stories were fascinating.

At one mile by two, and with only a short stretch of road, Muck may be small but it has plenty to offer. When I left in a worsening gale next morning, I couldn’t decide whether it was actually harder to leave or be stranded. If the forecast was accurate, then this was going to be the last trip for a few days for Ronnie Dyer, the skipper of the Sheerwater. I was already secretly planning my next visit. Over the following months, there were several.

It was a day of squalls lavished with brilliant shafts of low autumn sun. Fulmars flew low over the swell, waves massaged long wings and rainbows momentarily painted dark clouds with hope. From Arisaig, the crossing to Muck in the Sheerwater takes approximately two hours. It’s a turus mara – a sea journey – of heart-stopping beauty, as the play of light on the islands is sometimes almost too much for the human soul to bear.

The boat stops briefly at Eigg – if Ronnie has not been sidetracked en route by his passion for cetaceans, then passengers can land for half an hour. In summer, he frequently runs a little late. A minke whale is spotted. He prides himself on getting his passengers up close enough so that they may even smell the cabbage-like breath of a breaching whale. He may point out a pomarine skua, or some common dolphin; this journey is as much about wildlife as it is about reaching island destinations.

Eigg was a bustle of activity – asthmatic Land Rovers and a throng of islanders met new arrivals, as backpack-clad tourists stepped ashore to be sniffed at by wagging collies. A bossily bristling Jack Russell terrier endeavoured unsuccessfully to mount a flirtatious collie bitch, then defiantly hupped his leg onto an unattended suitcase instead. There were reunions and new meetings, hugs and handshakes, laugh-ing voices; everyone dived in to sort out provisions, luggage and supplies, from light bulbs to loo paper, spanners to sugar. Sheerwater and Caledonian MacBrayne’s Loch Nevis are lifelines. Boat arrivals are a social occasion, a gathering of long-awaited booty amidst a haze of revelry, and perhaps the aromatic whiff of wacky baccy.

We headed for Muck. The sea had turned inky blue-black, a storm cloud hid Eigg’s craggy sgùrr; a venomous shower was burdened with hail. The channel into Muck’s new pier is tricky. In severe weather and difficult tides, the small Sheerwater can often manage when the larger Caledonian MacBrayne boat cannot. Ronnie is intrepid but never puts his passengers at risk; Muck can be cut off for long periods.

Muck’s pier also buzzed with activity. Bedraggled dogs and anti-quated vehicles were gathered. Unlike Eigg, on Muck bitches are sensibly the only resident canines, so avoiding unwanted pregnancies, hassles and heartbreaks. Small rosy-cheeked children raced about on bikes. In the midst of the melee stood Lawrence, a man entering his early 70s. He was chatting, slightly stooped. Like the island’s small trees, he appears almost wind-sculpted by the prevailing gales, honed by years of sheer hard graft and the vagaries of the climate, still handsome. Clad in a boiler suit and wearing yellow oil rig-style wellies (and usually no socks), this is no tweedy absentee landowner but a driven soul who participates in everything from farming to his grandchildren’s tea parties, from drain clearance to butchering pigs, from holding business meetings to biking off to meet new arrivals at the pier. He and Jenny have always worked interminably long days and seem to be everywhere all the time for everyone.

Lawrence MacEwen is, in fact, the laird of Muck, but you would never think it. A distinctive figure with incredible blue eyes and bushy ginger eyebrows, a shock of greying, blond hair and a ginger beard, some describe him as like a noble Viking. He smiled, as huge work-hardened hands warmly shook mine. Soon my belongings and provisions were loaded into the transport box of his vintage Ferguson tractor, together with me and my collie, and it spluttered into life, carrying us in style to our accommodation. Two island collies gal-loped beside us, as the reek from the tractor dispersed and we gently proceeded along Muck’s highway – just a mile of tarmac with a grassy fringe down its centre. The squalls had calmed, the air was sharp, clearing from the west. Rum looked spectacular.

At the end of the road, my chauffeur barrowed my belongings from the farm up a narrow path around the bay to an airy cliff-top cottage overlooking a view to die for. We chatted about the price of sheep, the forthcoming cattle sale in Fort William and the final electrification of Muck. Despite a dodgy knee and a painful limp, he was insistent on pushing the heavy load. As I was about to discover, it is this very dogged determination that has kept this man at the helm of Muck for all these years. I had arrived and was now starting a journey with one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. Lawrence MacEwen’s story, the story of the remote Hebridean island of Muck, was about to unfold.

Muck, like all Hebridean islands, has a character all of its own. It’s part of a group known as the Small Isles which, though they may be relatively close to one another, all have a very different tale to tell: Eigg, with its chequered history of difficult landowners, is now owned by the community; Rum, a National Nature Reserve, with its minutely studied red deer population, is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, as well as the local community; Canna, a farming isle bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland by the Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell; and Muck, owned by the MacEwen family since 1896, the smallest and most fertile.

Muck is approximately 1,500 acres and has always had an excel-lent farming enterprise. The MacEwens are born stockmen and have farmed with the elements rather than against them, choosing highly suited native breeds with infusions of other blood to produce prime livestock. The good grazing supports 600 ewes, predominately dark-fleeced Jacob-Cheviot, plus 40 Luing and Luing-cross cattle. Recently Lawrence handed over the farm to his son, Colin, a man infused with the same MacEwen work ethic, and his equally hard-working wife, Ruth. Muck can produce surprisingly good crops, and over the years haymaking has been an important part of the agricultural calendar, though in recent increasingly wet summers silage has proved a less stressful option. Many of the island’s ancient drystone dykes have been recently rebuilt, adding greatly to the landscape features. There has been some new building – a new guesthouse/shooting lodge and a smart new community centre – and there are usually about eight children in a fairly modern school. The island population is currently around the 40 mark. Small woods planted since the mid-1900s have stood the abuse hurled at them by the climate, and have miraculously survived, providing vital shelter for birds and beasts.

The MacEwens made two smallholdings to accommodate the islanders, but Muck is not honeycombed with crofts; Lawrence and his family are about as far removed from the archetypal ‘feudal laird’ mould as it is possible to be, but their leadership and guidance has greatly helped the island’s stability. Despite this, problems and tragedies have been aplenty, some of them so heartbreaking and hard to deal with that they have doubtlessly led to a deep inner sadness.

In savage weather Muck can be one of the hardest places to live, but on days when sky and sea are as blue as topaz, and the bogs are red and emerald green with verdant mosses spiked with the delicately green-veined white waxy flowers of Grass of Parnassus, and the curlew calls over the sandy beaches, it is also heaven on earth. The flora and fauna of Muck is richly varied. In spring bluebells carpet the small woods and grassy banks, and stunted orchids dot bog and headland, while snipe drum high in the sky serenaded by cuckoo, skylark and a host of newly arrived migrants. In the sheltered bays the amorous cooings of dapper pied eider drakes posing to prospective mates also heralds the beginning of another busy tourist season. Though the wildlife is varied, there are few land mammals – otters are occasion-ally seen, common seals are numerous and haul out onto the skerries at Gallanach every day, and some grey seals come ashore to breed on Horse Island in the autumn. Their melancholy singing mingles with the wind and on moonlit nights adds an eerie dimension to the backdrop of silhouetted islands. Whales, in particular the minke, basking sharks, dolphins and porpoises can also be seen. It has been suggested that the Gaelic name for porpoise – muc mara, sea pig – is perhaps the origin of the island’s name. Both golden and sea eagles appear, though do not nest, on Muck. During one particular stay at Gallanach Cottage, a young sea eagle passed several times each day, sweeping so low and close around the headland that the sky noticeably darkened. I stood in a garden vibrant with fuschias and montbretia and watched it drift over in the direction of the duck pond – sea eagles are lazy hunters; it had clearly learned that an easy takeaway could be found courtesy of the Muck shoot. Toby Fichtner-Irvine, husband of the MacEwens’ daughter Mary, who runs the shoot, was philosophical about it: ‘The visitors will love it and I am sure we can spare a few duck and partridge for the sea eagle.’ Nature is quick to take advantage. Peregrines, too, were a daily sight and I found a plucking post on a prominent rock near the shore, with remnants of rock pipit’s feathers. Since the advent of the shoot and the arrival of numerous game birds, and the associated feeding of grain, numbers of passerines have increased dramatically, but so too have the rats. Occasional passing rarities cause a flurry of excitement, as ‘twitchers’ flock from near and far to add another tick to their lists, despite the logistics of the journey. As Lawrence wryly put it: ‘When we had a very nondescript bird, a veery, a North America member of the thrush family, hanging around the silage pit, they came in droves and stood there with telescopes and massive lenses – I suppose they must record it on Twitter.’

Muck has never had a shop or post office. There is no doctor or nurse, and until 2013 there was no round-the-clock electricity. In fact, it was one of the last places in the UK to be electrified. Jenny MacEwen, who Lawrence describes as the ‘human side of Muck’, runs a thriving tearoom; it bulges at the seams in summer with day-trippers calling in on either of the two boats. Island fisherman Sandy Mathers, one of few remaining residents bred here, keeps her stocked with shellfish. She is up at dawn baking delicious bread and cakes, as well as vast vats of soup with home-produced ingredients. Many visitors will walk no further than the tearoom close to the pier and, satiated with Muck’s fine fodder, leave to tell friends and family how lovely it all is, though relatively they will have seen nothing.

Muck, like neighbouring Rum and Ardnamurchan, is important geologically and is largely composed of basalt lava flows. The dramatic shoreline and cliffs at Camus Mor on the island’s south-west side are a Site of Special Scientific Interest; fossils found here are confined to stunted oysters forming layers amongst other material. Surrounded by a dramatic panorama of islands, views sweep to the rugged hills of Knoydart, Torridon and Ardnamurchan Point; this tiny drop in the ocean captivates all who visit but not only for the scenery, flora, fauna and peace.

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