AT THE end of a single-track road, in a small village in Argyll,
stands a modest house with a dilapidated shed behind.
At the back of the shed sits a lean figure, gazing out of the
window at the glen he has known since childhood. Magnus
MacFarlane-Barrow grew up here, attended the village school, later
dropped out of university, and returned to farm fish. It was an
ordinary enough beginning.
Now in his late forties, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow spends a good deal
of time in his shed. Beneath its corrugated-iron roof is the
headquarters of an international aid agency that feeds a million
children every school day; 700,000 of them are in Malawi, the rest
spread over 11 other countries.
From between its wood-panelled walls, flaky with white paint,
more than 400,000 backpacks, filled with school supplies, have been
sourced from donors across Europe, and sent to Africa.
The shed embodies Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's disarming humility.
"I never planned to get involved in this kind of work," he says
in the introduction to his new book, The Shed that Fed a
Million Children. "I am a rather unlikely and poorly qualified
person to lead such a mission."
POORLY qualified or not, in the mid-1990s he left his nets to
follow an impulse to drive aid trucks to Bosnia. From there, he
went on to establish orphanages in Romania, and set up mobile
clinics in Liberia, helping to resettle villagers displaced by war.
Volunteers flocked to help, as if drawn by a mysterious
Even the great and the good were attracted. He has dined with
the Queen, and has been blessed personally by Pope Francis. (He is
a Roman Catholic.) In 2010, he was selected as a CNN Hero, and
invited to a celebrity reception in Los Angeles. And, in April this
year, TIME magazine named him as one of its 100 most
influential people in the world. (The jobbing journalist who wrote
his entry was a former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.)
Across what passes for a boardroom table (it looks like a fresh
arrival from a charity shop), Mr MacFarlane-Barrow sits and sips
instant coffee from a brown mug. I wonder about his comment in the
book that he is an unlikely candidate for this position.
"When this work first began, I was chronically shy. The idea of
doing public talks would have filled me with horror. Academically,
I never completed my university studies. I've got no relevant
qualifications. I'd been a salmon farmer [with] very little
experience of the broader world, or large organisations and how
There is something in his manner which tells me this is not
false modesty. He is simply stating facts. But that only deepens
the conundrum: how is it that a softly spoken father of seven is
feeding a quarter of Malawi's primary-school children from a shed
in the middle of nowhere?
For Mr MacFarlane-Barrow, the story begins in the former
"As a 15-year-old, I went to Medjugorje with my sister and
brothers. At that time, it was a place that wasn't really heard of.
We'd just read a little news-in-brief column in the Herald
saying there's a report that the Virgin Mary's appearing.
"We'd been brought up as devout Catholics: we were steeped in
that tradition of Marian apparitions - Lourdes, Fatima. To suddenly
be presented with this idea that that could be happening in our own
day led us to say to our mum and dad: we should go there, and find
out if that is even possibly true."
THE visit to Medjugorje had a profound impact on the family. The
young people returned convinced, and their parents could see the
change in them. The family guest house in Dalmally was transformed
into a retreat centre. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's sister Ruth wrote
about their experience in the Catholic Herald, and a
thousand letters poured in from interested readers.
A few years later, when the war in Bosnia broke out, Mr
MacFarlane-Barrow and his brother were spending a quiet evening in
the village pub. They began to discuss the news report that they
had just seen, which had featured a refugee camp near Medjugorje.
They were moved by the realisation that the Yugoslavia they had
visited as teenagers was now tearing itself apart, and began to
wonder whether they might be able to help.
Three weeks later, they were heading for Bosnia in a Land Rover
packed with aid. Word had gone round of their sudden adventure, and
donations had tumbled in.
This was the first of many trips delivering aid to the former
Yugoslavia, in increasingly larger vehicles. Unbidden, donations
continued to arrive at the shed, sweeping Mr MacFarlane-Barrow from
his day job at the fish farm to work full-time organising the
relief effort. Scottish International Relief was born, and for the
next ten years, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow pursued projects in Europe and
IN 2002, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow learned of the terrible famine in
Southern Africa, and in Malawi in particular. While wondering how
to respond, he remembered a letter the family had received in
response to Ruth's Catholic Herald article, written nearly
20 years before. Of the 1000 letters they had received, this was
the one that had stood out.
The correspondent, Gay Russell, had been a pilot living in
Malawi. Intrigued by the young people's experience, she had written
for more information about Medjugorje. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow had not
heard from her for two decades. While he was wondering about what
had become of her, he was incredulous to discover that one of the
guests staying in the retreat centre (who had had a conversion
experience in Medjugorje) not only knew Gay Russell, but was
working with her in Malawi.
With Russell's help, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow began to explore
options in Malawi. It was on his second visit that he received a
shock that proved to be pivotal to all that followed. It came
through a chance encounter with a 14-year-old Malawian, Edward.
Asked about his hopes in life, Edward had replied: "I would like
to have enough food to eat, and I would like to be able to go to
school one day."
Mr MacFarlane-Barrow recalls the impact of that statement. "To
hear that, like it was a lofty ambition or a dream - it was a
deeply shocking thing to hear from a 14-year-old."
In response, Mr MacFarlane-Barrow forged his own "lofty
ambition": to provide a daily meal in a place of learning. Food and
education - this would enable hungry children to attend school, and
receive the education that could become a ladder out of
The simple vision of Mary's Meals was born.
"It's not an original idea," Mr MacFarlane-Barrow explains, "but
I'm not sure that other organisations have made it their sole
THE single-mindedness of this vision may help to explain the
rapid growth of Mary's Meals. In just over a decade, its annual
income has risen to about £15 million. Around the world, it employs
275 paid staff, 50 of whom are in the British Isles. And the
school-feeding projects are delivered by a scattered multitude of
Some of this growth has no doubt come from tapping into a Roman
Catholic constituency of supporters, and the sense that Mary's
Meals is a fruit of Medjugorje. At the same time, its appeal has
gone far beyond this, embracing "people of all faiths and
Its values are another compelling factor: it is a grass-roots
movement, relying on local support and committed to sustainable
working over the long term. It has also been selective in borrowing
from the wisdom of the corporate world: witness the shed.
For all this, there remains something unexplained about the
strange magnetism of Mary's Meals. I put this to Mr
"Mary's Meals really does have that [magnetism] in quite a
powerful way. There's lots of things about Mary's Meals that are
still mysterious to me; and that would be one of them. I feel a
constant sense of surprise about what's happened.
"One of the hallmarks of Mary's Meals, everywhere I go, is that
people are joyful because of this mission. That's one of the
reasons I feel so privileged to do it.
"I would describe Mary's Meals as a fruit of prayer. I say that
partly because of what Mum and Dad have done with the retreat
centre here; for almost ten years before that decision to drive aid
to Bosnia, there had been people faithfully praying here in this
place every day. I have always had this sense that Mary's Meals
grew unexpectedly out of that."
I ASK about Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's motivations.
"That's always one of the hardest questions, isn't it?" he says.
"I do think that, at the deepest level, then and now, is my
"All of us who meet a chronically hungry child, our first
overwhelming desire is to give them something to eat. I don't claim
that that desire only resides in people who have a Christian faith.
But, for me, in the years before this work began, I didn't spend a
lot of time thinking about people living in that kind of poverty.
The decisions I made at that time were very much because I felt
that's what God wanted me to do.
"And there were other motives in there as well, like that sense
Mr MacFarlane-Barrow's exploits gradually turned him into a
reluctant hero. As the limelight began to dazzle, he found it
increasingly difficult to hide. He recalls a trip to Liberia with
the actor Gerard Butler, where, for once, he was relieved to find
himself no longer the centre of attention.
"Gerry was up, dancing, in the middle of the village. He goes
into a community, and the place lights up, and he makes everyone
laugh. That was great for me because I could hide in the corner,
which is what I normally try to do anyway, and don't always get
away with it. I'm someone who needs my own space, and that's
probably another reason for the shed."
WITH the growth of Mary's Meals came increased media interest,
award ceremonies, and celebrity appearances. "Magnus" means
"great"; but, for a man who would gladly spend a day in solitude,
working with his hands, the "hero" tag is deeply uncomfortable.
"I probably have got a little bit better at it. I've come to
realise that these awards are for Mary's Meals, and for this huge
group of people around the world who are doing this amazing thing.
But it's dangerous. There's lots of aspects of this work that are
dangerous - that can easily lead you down the path of thinking you
are something you are not."
So what are the things that ground him?
"I suppose the shed would be one of them. That's one of the
reasons why we stay rooted here, which, in some ways, is a pretty
daft thing to do - to be out here in the middle of nowhere. The
shed itself is really important. This is how we began. One of our
big things is being low-cost.
"Also, staying rooted in family and community - a group of
people who are perfectly capable of challenging you when you're
making a mistake, or doing something stupid. I'm blessed with a big
family who are very capable of doing that."
ALL along, I have been wondering about his family. Throughout
the book, they stay largely in the shadows. But the book ends with
a swim in the river with his children.
With the hunger of a million children resting on his shoulders,
I wonder how he balances this work with the needs of his own
"That's probably the toughest and the most dangerous part of it
- making sure that I first of all look after my family, and look
out for my own responsibilities as a father and husband. So that
has to be number one.
"How that plays out day to day isn't always easy - when to say
'yes' and 'no'. I don't think I could have navigated that without
an incred-ible wife, who shares my faith and who shares my passion
for this work. That's an ongoing dialogue."
The shed, the man, the million hungry children - like the
apparitions in Medjugorje, this seems like a quiet miracle. How
this could have happened remains mysterious. But there are some
clues. The shed itself witnesses to the power of humility; the man
embodies a confidence placed beyond himself; and the million hungry
children speak to the best in our humanity.
For the joyful ocean of volunteers who now serve Mary's Meals,
the greater mystery might be that it did not happen sooner.
The Shed That Fed A Million Children by Magnus
MacFarlane-Barrow is published by William Collins (£12.99 (
CT Bookshop £11.70) hardback; and ebook).