I have been passing Muck on the ferry for more than 30 years, but never managed to set foot on it until recently. It is such a lovely island and such a vibrant community, I wish I had landed years ago.
Muck is half the size of Canna, but has managed to maintain its population at around 40 for fifty years – whereas Canna’s has halved in that time. The flexible attitude of the MacEwan family who own it, is a large part of the reason. If someone wants to do something – build a house, keep stock, start a business – the answer is generally ‘yes,’ with no demand for extra rent.
Like all tiny, fragile island communities, Muck has had its ups and downs. “It has been a struggle,” Lawrence MacEwan admitted to me, “we have had some very strange people here. We have always managed to keep the school open – although on occasion we have been down to a class of one. ”
The island has had a community company, with every adult as a full voting member, since 1992 and it is the company which undertakes the major developments, such as the impressive community hall, opened two years ago at a cost of £600,000. It provides a games court, meeting room and space for dances and wedding receptions. The whole island, including the children, helped to raise the money and took a hand – or spade – in digging the foundations.
Another community company development is the electricity grid. Muck has had wind energy for years, but the old windmills have now been replaced by six 5kw turbines, supplemented by a 33kw photovoltaic array, providing a 24-hour a day supply. Since they have been installed they have been producing more power than the island needs, meaning that some of the turbines can be switched off in rotation to save on wear and tear. The diesel back-up has been used so infrequently that it is necessary to run it regularly to make sure it still starts.
Muck has taken some brave and controversial decisions in order to diversify its economy. In contrast to Canna, which rejected a fish farming proposal, Muck welcomed it. The company concerned, Norwegian-owned Marine Harvest, has been criticised for heavy use of toxic chemicals, and major outbreaks of sea lice and salmon diseases. But it is trying to improve its environmental record, joining the Aquaculture Stewardship council, a new accreditation scheme championed by the nature campaigners WWF.
The farm is now established in the waters between Muck and Eigg and is not visible from the main populated parts of the island. Marine Harvest has built three new, larch-clad houses for the farm manager and workers, including a family with school-age children. If the farm expands as planned two more houses will be built.
Another development is to start a shooting business, necessitating the stocking of the island each year with thousands of pheasants, grouse and mallard. This would not please wildlife purists, but shooters are big spenders and have the advantage of coming in the winter months when conventional tourism is practically non-existent. The weather can sometimes interrupt bookings, but so far the venture has supported the building of a luxurious new hotel, which provides excellent meals using local produce (caught as well as shot).
Unlike Canna, where I have never seen my book on sale, the Muck tearoom and craft shop had two copies of The Man Who Gave Away His Island, (plus several of John Lorne Campbell’s books, including the latest edition of Canna.) One was sold while I was there, but it didn’t take me long to track down the purchaser.