From the Telegraph…
The corrugated tin hut crouching in the undergrowth, dwarfed by dripping firs, looks like a wartime relic nobody could be bothered to clear away. It has an unglamorous past – children’s games room, garage, all-purpose bothy – but these days there’s a hint of importance in its decrepit exterior: a sign reading “Mary’s Meals” has been stuck above the doorway.
Anyone else running a global operation would have abandoned such a pitiful office years ago, especially if they had to stoop to get inside. But to Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, his father’s shed in Dalmally, Argyll, has acquired a talismanic significance. It’s where he stockpiled food and clothes for Bosnian refugees in the 1990s – an amateurish humanitarian mission that eventually led him to sell his house, give up his job and concentrate on the much bigger project of feeding poor children in Third World countries.
Mary’s Meals, which is one of the Telegraph’s Christmas charities this year, now provides a daily school meal for 350,000 children across Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. In Malawi, it feeds 10 per cent of the primary-school population. That one meal – provided for as little as £8.50 a year – is a passport to education and a way out of poverty.
Given the scale of the programme, there have inevitably been discussions about replacing the wonky headquarters with something less primitive. But the shed prevails. Its simplicity suits MacFarlane-Barrow’s distrust of anything showy.
We enter a spartan room with a big table, a few chairs and one small heater struggling to keep the Scottish winter at bay. At the far end is a space no bigger than a cockpit. From here, looking out over a majestic landscape, MacFarlane-Barrow keeps in touch with his worldwide network of volunteers by email. Just up the hill is the modest white house, built by a friend, that he shares with his wife, Julie, and their six children. Next door, there’s a proper office for the charity’s small staff, funded by a well-wisher. Opposite sits Craig Lodge, the sprawling family home that MacFarlane-Barrow’s parents turned into a Catholic retreat.
Inside the lodge, much of the talk among guests is about what Mary’s Meals is up to. At breakfast, I’m buttonholed by an elderly monk, Brother Paul, who is keen to tell me that MacFarlane-Barrow is a singular man, who takes only a minimal salary to meet his family’s needs. Other stories circulate of his frugality, of how he folds his large frame into economy seats on long flights, seldom stays in hotels and keeps the charity’s overheads to almost nothing. He was left an inheritance from his uncle and put it straight into Mary’s Meals. His mother sold a painting left to her by a distant relative for the same cause. His father, a painter, gives half the proceeds from his Scottish landscapes. The whole enterprise has the homespun dynamic of a parish appeal that set out to repair the roof and ended up rebuilding the whole church.
In fact, Mary’s Meals doesn’t conform to any known business model, any more than MacFarlane-Barrow, self-effacing and quietly spoken, conforms to the notion of an entrepreneur. When people ask him what his targets are, they might as well be speaking a foreign language. “We don’t do targets”, he says. “What has happened here, we couldn’t have made up. If we had set the kind of growth targets we have actually achieved this year, people would have said we were mad.”
The idea of providing school-age children with one good meal a day sprang from the simple wish of a 14-year-old boy in Malawi. Edward was one of five children whose mother was dying of Aids. He told MacFarlane-Barrow that his twin ambitions were to have enough to eat and to go to school. The Scotsman grasped immediately that if the promise of a meal could lure a child to school, then education could offer an escape from dependence. “It is ridiculous”, he says, “that people are hungry when you can feed them for so little.”
Is he ever fired by anger? He looks a bit nonplussed. “It’s not something I feel often. Though I do think the abandoned child, and the hungry child, are an offence to God.” The Scottish business tycoon and philanthropist, Duncan Bannatyne, calls him the most inspirational person he has ever met: “I do think if Magnus had set his mind to become an entrepreneur, he’d be a billionaire by now. He’s the most entrepreneurial charity worker I’ve ever met. He is also a truly great man.”
But plaudits are wasted on MacFarlane-Barrow, 40, who hates talking about himself and for whom awards (Young Person of the Year in 2005; Unsung Hero in 2006) are a trial. “Public speaking was agony to begin with,” he admits. “I’d try to get out of talks. Now I spend a lot of my time doing it and I don’t mind.”
MacFarlane-Barrow comes from a family of well-born eccentrics. His grandfather, a passionate Scot who went to Eton, taught himself Gaelic, became an Episcopalian minister and for a time lived on a boat on Loch Ness. His kilt-wearing father, Calum, was a deer-stalker who took him on expeditions around Fort William. Magnus had shot his first deer by the time he was 12. “Most of my childhood memories are of walking with Dad on the hills.”
The five children were brought up as devout Catholics. When Magnus was 14, he and his elder sister, Ruth, and younger brother Fergus, persuaded their parents to let them go to Medjugorje, in what was then Yugoslavia, where they had read that the Virgin Mary – after whom Mary’s Meals was named by a friend of MacFarlane-Barrow’s – had appeared to six young people on a remote hillside.
“When we came back, Mum and Dad could see that something profound had happened to us,” he says. “That moved them to go themselves two months later.” When they returned, the pair converted turned their upmarket shooting-and-fishing guest house into a retreat, selling their salmon fishing rights to finance it.
MacFarlane-Barrow admits that he sometimes resented the invasion of guests. “I was quite wild growing up and spent a lot of time in pubs. But I never lost my faith and I knew the retreat centre was a very good thing.” A shy 17-year-old, he went to read history at Stirling University but dropped out after six months. “It wasn’t for me. I wanted to come back to Argyll, and the one industry that was growing was fish farming.”
For the next six years, he went out by boat each day to service the huge floating salmon pens in the sea off Kilmartin. It was hard, repetitive labour and might have gone on indefinitely but for the war in Bosnia. Magnus and his brother Fergus were appalled by television images of villagers fleeing with their belongings from the area where they had enjoyed such hospitality years earlier. They collected food, clothes and medicine, bought a second-hand Land Rover and drove to Bosnia, the first of 80 missions.
“We had no vision of setting up a charitable organisation,” he says. “But we quickly realised that it was ongoing work and we registered as a charity – Scottish International Relief.”
MacFarlane-Barrow sold his house near the fish farm, moved back to live with his parents and gained an HGV licence so he could transport ever larger cargoes of aid. A young nurse from Inverness, hoping to tend war victims in Mostar, asked if she could go along. “He wasn’t keen on the idea,” says Julie. “He thought it could be difficult if we didn’t get on. In those days, he was a very shy and awkward Highlander.”
“She passed her HGV test first time and I failed,” says MacFarlane-Barrow. “I never heard the end of it from friends. She is a fantastic truck driver, a natural.” Two years later, they were married by the priest who had travelled with them.
“Julie is amazing in the way she supports me in the work I now do”, says her husband. “That’s been a blessing in our marriage. I get the glamorous bit, gallivanting round the world. She looks after the children. We keep a very close eye on my travels, because there’s no point in running round trying to help children round the world if I don’t see my own.”
People often ask him if he finds his work depressing. Quite the opposite, he says. “I feel uplifted and encouraged. I am really humbled by what people in poor communities are doing each day to make life better; by their determination and optimism. If they are not despairing, why should I be?
There seems to be no limit now to the reach of Mary’s Meals. In Zimbabwe, for example, hunger and cholera are so widespread that more than half of pupils have stopped going to school. MacFarlane-Barrow is currently lobbying bureaucrats to be allowed to bring in food supplies from Malawi through Mozambique. His aim is to feed 2,300 primary-school children in the capital, Harare, and Kwekwe, a city in the centre of the country, to get them to return to education.
The amount raised by the parent charity of Mary’s Meals, Scottish International Relief, is increasing by 40 per cent each year, to roughly £4 million last year. How big dare he get? “There are dangers to growing, but we wouldn’t want to put a limit on it, because there is such a momentum. There are millions of children out there who need this desperately. I don’t think we could stop it now, even if we wanted to.”
Mary’s Meals has been our Advent charity and we are at risk of being swamped by the tons of school backpacks we have filled to go to those in need.