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Face to Face: Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder of Mary's Meals

STANDING tall and broad, occasionally kilted and with the rosiness of cheek sported by those who thrive outdoors, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow wouldn’t look out of place on the front of a packet of porridge oats, swinging a caber.

It would be a fitting image for the man whose charity, Mary’s Meals, now feeds half a million children around the world with one basic, nutritious meal every day. However self-promotion is not his thing.

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Over the years, as the charity’s work has attracted international recognition, it has nudged Mr MacFarlane-Barrow, 43, reluctantly into the limelight. While his natural reaction is to stay in the background, he recognises his involvement and the charity’s homespun appeal -- he still operates from a rather flimsy looking shed on the edge of Dalmally in Argyll -- are part of the attraction.

As rain lashes the window-panes, it feels more akin to the monsoon-ravaged corners of the world where Mary’s Meals operates. The charity now provides schooling and a daily meal to children in 16 countries including Malawi, Liberia and Haiti.

He sits beneath a world map dotted with pins, each representing a project, and admits his desire for a low profile has been challenged recently. In November, he found himself being mobbed by Hollywood glitterati -- including Demi Moore and Jon Bon Jovi -- when he attended the CNN ordinary heroes awards as one of 10 people being honoured.

“Now that was surreal,” he says. “Gerry Butler was there and it was kind of a joke between me and him because he thought it was hilarious that I don’t know anything about films or actors.

“That whole thing was really, really weird, all these famous people. Some of it made us feel very odd, but it was really nice meeting Gerry Butler and the other heroes from around the world.”

He now has snapshots featuring himself and various Hollywood faces. “It’ll be good thinking back on it in old age because it was a very unusual experience,” he says. “One night was probably enough though, I was quite happy to get home, get the wellies back on and up the hill.”

He was given an OBE in the New Year’s Honours but admits that, reluctant to be singled out, he thought long and hard before accepting: “I was happy to accept it in the end because -- like various other things that on the face of it recognise me -- they are really about a recognition of Mary’s Meals around the world. So from that point of view I was delighted to accept it. I have an ongoing discomfort with personal awards of any sort because it’s exactly what Mary’s Meals isn’t about; it’s a movement of lots of people doing different things.”

By this he means the 30 staff and an international army of 10,000 volunteers -- including 400 in Scotland. As more of the fundraising work now takes place overseas, fitting Mary’s Meals around family life is a challenge.

“I’m very clear in my mind that my first responsibility is as husband and father, but it’s an ongoing challenge making decisions about when to say yes.”

With child number seven on the way, challenging is the word. Did he always envisage a large family? “Not really, to be honest. It’s a bit like Mary’s Meals actually, it just keeps growing.”

He credits the passion of wife Julie for the charity as being key to making the work-life balance achievable. The pair met when Julie was a nurse and hitched a lift on one of the early trips bound for Bosnia with a truck of donated goods during the Balkans conflict.

She was keen to volunteer in a hospital but soon became involved with the charity. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow says he realised fairly quickly she was the woman for him, due in part, he jokes, to her skills behind the wheel of an articulated lorry.

Running an international charity was never the plan -- a vague desire to work outdoors was his only vocational thought as a youngster -- spawned by happy childhood days spent accompanying his deerstalker father in the hills around Braemar.

The family moved to Ballachulish where his parents ran a busy hotel and restaurant business before relocating to a smaller guest-house in Dalmally, which was more conducive to family life although still lively. “It was fantastic,” he says.

An able student, he found himself on the conveyor belt to university and reluctantly left Argyll to start a course in history and politics at Stirling University.

He soon found campus life was not for him. “It was the worst choice I could have made,” he says. “I remember feeling really claustrophobic, coming from my sort of upbringing to suddenly being in a little box. It was just the fact that all you see all day is students.”

He left after six months. “It was quite painful. I did reasonably well at school and my parents probably had different ideas about what I might end up doing and weren’t particularly happy when I came back. You’re just at that age when you’re trying to find your way in life. I don’t regret it.”

On returning home, he went into salmon farming, one of the few booming industries in the area and one which allowed him to spend his days outdoors.

For six years he was based at Lochgoilhead. “I loved the peace and quiet being out at sea,” he says. “In those days fishing was very manual and labour-intensive and I liked that, but it was monotonous too, and it was cold,” he adds. “A lot of it was like a battle to survive.”

Away from work, his passion was shinty and enjoying a pint in the village pub. In fact, it was there that he and his brother Fergus had a conversation about the war raging in the former Yugoslavia which would lead to Mary’s Meals. Having seen footage of refugees on the evening news bulletin, they decided to gather clothes and other essentials locally and transport them to the refugees.

The donations kept coming and the brothers kept transporting them and what had started as a one-off trip grew into the charity, Scottish International Relief, of which Mary’s Meals is part.

Why does Mr MacFarlane-Barrow believe his outrage led to action? The answer lies in a life-changing experience he had as a teenager. “When I was 14, my siblings and friends went to a place called Medjugorje in Bosnia, a place where there were reports that the Virgin Mary had appeared to a group of teenagers. It sounds mad, I know, but we had been brought up as very devout Catholics with stories of these things that had happened hundreds of years ago in Lourdes and at Fatima.”

The curious youngsters felt compelled to investigate. With their parents’ blessings they set off for the mountain village. After an arduous journey they arrived to find there were no hotels, but were immediately taken in, looked after and fed by local families.

Every night the entire village flocked to the church and Mr MacFarlane-Barrow and his friends joined them. He says it was an experience he finds difficult to put into words. “A lot of what was happening to me was something spiritual about my own heart,” he says. “A lot of people go to see miracles -- the sun spinning and physical healing and so on -- I’ve witnessed things like that happening over the years and I have no problem believing those things happen, but what happened to me back then was more about a renewed faith.

“In terms of the Virgin Mary speaking to these teenagers, all she is really saying to them -- and she is doing it to this day -- is that God exists and is asking people to turn back to the gospel. So it’s nothing new or wacky. It’s an affirmation of Christian faith. It’s an invitation to make God the centre of your life, not something on the edge, and that’s really what we felt when we came back. It was very much a turning point. I don’t want to sound like I was some sort of Holy Joe thereafter, that I never made any mistakes, because I continue to this day to make plenty. But my faith’s never left me and I always try to live that way.”

While his motivation for Mary’s Meals was his personal faith, from the beginning he was adamant the charity was to be nondenominational and would involve people of all faiths and none, and that is the way it continued.

“I think, as I get older, I worry less about other people thinking I’m some kind of fruitcake, but certainly growing up I didn’t have any friends who had a strong faith of any sort. A lot of the time, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable speaking about my own faith.”

He agrees that in Britain there is an unease surrounding religious debate which sees it downplayed. “I think it can be and it makes me sad,” he says. “I spend quite a lot of time in other countries and other cultures and it strikes me that we are quite an odd culture in this country. We are a country in which it seems to be particularly difficult for us to talk openly about our faith, and I’m not just talking about my particular Catholic or Christian faith.”

Around the world, many of the Mary’s Meals projects are now well established, and meeting the young adults whose lives have gone in a different direction because they have been to school is particularly satisfying. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow talks of a 19-year-old man named Jimmy who lives in one of Haiti’s worst slums. “He grew up in abject poverty and is quite open about the fact he would never have gone to school had it not been for Mary’s Meals. He is now head boy and wants to study agriculture at college to help the people of Haiti grow their own food.

“That, at the end of the day, is what Mary’s Meals are all about. It’s people like Jimmy who are going to solve the problems of Haiti, not us.”

He often thinks of some of the HIV-positive orphans he discovered, forgotten and lame in a Romania hospital, tied to beds and banging their heads off the bars. The charity built homes for them and last year he returned to attend the weddings of three of the now grown-up children.

Has he ever been overwhelmed by the hopelessness of a situation? He thinks for a moment and says: “If you’re just observing it, I don’t know how I would cope, but when I am there, it is to do something specific, so I am totally focused on what I’m trying to do. Whenever I’ve experienced the most horrible situations, one way or another, I’ve always encountered the most amazing human spirit, the most heroic responses. I encounter things which build my faith and make me more hopeful or more amazed by human beings.”

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