The salmon farmer who feeds the world

By Mark Greaves

Mark Greaves meets Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow, founder of a charity that provides free meals to half a million children each day

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow’s first experience of delivering aid was to drive a Land Rover crammed with food, clothing and medicine from the Highlands of Scotland down to Bosnia. At the time he was a salmon farmer: he had taken just a week’s holiday to do it. When he got back, his family shed was bulging with aid that had poured in from friends and friends of friends. He quit his job, sold his house, and learned to drive articulated lorries. Now, about 20 years later, his charity Mary’s Meals feeds half a million children every day.

But that is not the start of the story. At least, not how Magnus tells it. The real beginning was 10 years earlier, when he was 14, and he went on a pilgrimage to a small village called Medjugorje.

I meet Magnus for tea near London Victoria. He is tall and in a suit; his hair is greying a bit at the sides. He says he finds it hard to describe the effect that first trip had on him. “It was something in my heart – an experience of God’s grace,” he says. Later, he describes it as “something God seems to do for many people there: [he] gives them an awareness of his love for them”.

It was a madcap adventure: 10 of his family and friends, all teenagers, turned up at Medjugorje without anywhere to stay. They had read an article about six children having visions of the Virgin Mary and thought if it was possibly true they should visit. They flew in to Dubrovnik and drove there in two hire cars (harder than it sounds, since their map didn’t have Medjugorje on it).

After evening Mass a friar, Fr Slavko Barbaric, came over to them and introduced them to his sister, who they ended up staying with for the week and who had children their age. It was, Magnus says, an “amazing mixture of the supernatural and the very mundane” – one minute they’d be talking to Bosnian children about Italian football and the next “we’d all be talking about the fact that one of them was going out with one of the visionaries”.

At the time the six alleged visionaries were young teenagers, too. They invited Magnus’s group into the room where they were having apparitions of the Virgin Mary every evening. Magnus knows two of them still.

What struck him, though, was not the visionaries themselves – they were “very nice, very ordinary people”– but the faith of the villagers and the way they responded to what the six children were saying.

“By the time I came home,” he says, “I had the belief that Our Lady really was appearing in Medjugorje and that she was appearing with a message for the whole world.”

He says that he wanted to try, “in whatever way I could, to respond to her invitation to … put God back at the centre”.

About a decade later Magnus was in a pub with his brother Fergus. They were talking about a news item they had seen about refugees near Medjugorje during the Bosnian war. And that’s when they thought of driving aid there themselves.

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For God to live in your hearts, you must love.