The island of Muck is one of four that form the Small Isles, a distinct cluster within the Inner Hebrides. It’s a rough and craggy but arable place, playing host to just shy of 40 residents, some farm animals and whatever tourists happen by on the several weekly ferries. By far one of the oldest residents and most well-known faces is the island’s owner Lawrence MacEwen. This old patriarch, stooped and aged, has tended this harsh but beautiful place all his days, and the land has lain in his family’s care since 1896. Cindy Jansen’s documentary follows his work and wanderings, and the fraying ends of his control over the land and the old farming traditions he still follows.
Prince of Muck takes its pacing from that of the island and the man it depicts. The languid camera pans across the sea and the treeless terrain befits the sedentary existence of the residents. MacEwen himself moves at a similarly glacial pace, with crooks or aids to help him walk, shuffling with his head bowed by age and toil. Still, he’s a man who works the land, and rarely stops, favouring mucking out byres by hand and keeping to methods long abandoned by others. In many senses, he’s a man trapped by tradition and a self-imposed adherence to the old ways. This is quite unlike his son Colin, who actively runs the farm to modern standards and conspicuously has no part in the documentary, other than passing by occasionally in the background.
Jensen has been clever in the use of archived footage, as well. This allows the portrait of the man to be contrasted with footage from 1970s, of him hale, hearty and proud; working with the same grin, but with a spryness and energy now long gone. But as much as the island remains the same, there is a sense of MacEwen as another craggy feature of it, about to be worn clean by time and weather.
As a documentary, it’s occasionally a little slow, and MacEwen can be as frustrating to watch as he clearly is to his family members when he sets his mind to something. Still, the ever-present sense of things slipping away and how the struggle to maintain things is an all but Sisyphean effort is as clear as the sea air, and this film captures a strange and unique place and time, that will, soon enough, be gone forever.
Screening as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021