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Soup and sailing with Murray MacDonald

Murray MacDonald tells me there are two sides to him. The ‘social media’ side of Murray – amiable, chipper, and perhaps “too confident,” he claims, in a hail-fellow-well-met sort of way – is most likely the Murray known to the Edinburgh locals that make up the Facebook group The Meadows Share, an online free exchange popular among Edinburgh residents and students alike for its ‘waste not, want not’ credo.

In recent months, Murray has become a regular contributor to The Meadows Share, not in a need to get rid of unwanted clutter, but instead using it as an indispensable platform in nurturing his seemingly lifelong charitable passions.

Over Christmas and New Year, Murray decided to voluntarily cook and deliver homemade soups across Edinburgh for those who needed “a bit of cheering up,” broadcasting his efforts to members of the group with the aim of reaching as many people within the city as he could. No payment necessary; just a reciprocal ‘like’ for his charity page, Autism on the Water. 

Murray also considers there to be a more authentic, ‘real life’ side to himself. Like around one per cent of the population, Murray is autistic, something he discusses unreservedly both on social media and during our hour-long conversation.

As with many people diagnosed with autism, Murray’s relationship with the world can manifest itself in ways different to people’s regular expectations.

This is how his social media-savvy side emerges. “[Autistic people] have their own different ways of expressing their feelings… I have to do a post on social media, tell the world how I’m feeling.”

While being autistic has proved to often be a source of difficulty when interacting with the world – from difficult dates and sneering faces at him not being able to wear a mask, to a fear of cows (“they’re miserable buggers”) – Murray has instead taken this in his stride, developing a charitable profile of himself built on being autistic which had led to running a fully-fledged and legally registered charity.

Murray’s smaller charitable escapades, from his soup deliveries to a single-handed cleanup of the Meadows back in July, both of which have turned him into somewhat of a local celebrity, have cultivated several thousand ‘likes’ from his posts on Facebook – for many people, a bright sign of hope during a dissonant annus horribilis allowing him to orchestrate those keen to show their support to instead interact with his charity, Autism on the Water.

The goal behind Murray’s charity is distinct and unique – to introduce autistic people to the joys of sailing. Murray himself is a passionate sailor. His face lights up when we move to talking about Autism on the Water.

He chooses a wind-thrown racing yacht as his virtual Zoom background. There was little indication that it used to be any other way. “I’ve grown up with sailing all my life … but when I first started I hated it. I hated the heeling over, I hated the shouting and I hated the social side of it.”

Soon enough Murray was enlightened by the effect of sailing on his ability to interact with the world. “It really benefited my confidence, my problem solving and my sociability – three skills that autistic people really struggle with every day of the year.” In this he recognised a chance to make a difference in the lives of autistic people where their autism is perceived to be a barrier from their connection to the outside world.

By his account, Autism on the Water started out as little more than a passion project to broaden among the general public the capabilities of autistic people, but has since grown into a fully fledged, legally incorporated charity that stretches continents.

“I built this Facebook page, [on a] cold, wet and windy night…. I started it with no plan, no money, no ambition, no thought as to where it would go at all.”

Murray started by taking a few dozen autistic people out for a sailing experience day, and despite some ripped sails and sentiments of disapproval and disbelief at being able to run such an ambitions project while being autistic, the organisation built from the ground up is no small feat by any regular measure.

In fact, just days before our conversation, he finalised the purchase of a second boat for the charity. Autism on the Water boasts a diverse group of trustees, comprising of Murray himself and Paralympic sailor Hannah Stodel as well as a rapidly expanding list of sponsors that fund the charity.

Murray can also pride himself in calling Autism on the Water an international brand. During a trip to Hong Kong for the Volvo Ocean Race, the charity caught the attention of David Witt, skipper for Hong Kong’s Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, and a proud ambassador for the charity after learning of his own nephew’s diagnosis with autism during a remaining leg of the race.

I come away from our interview with the impression of a man truly gratified by his experience of running a charity. Murray being autistic has had a striking impact in enabling the success of Autism on the Water – he feels that one of his most remarkable achievements was, on two different occasions, providing the opportunity for non-verbal autistic people to step off one of his boats led to them speaking for the first time in their lives.

What some had thought would be a hurdle to success has instead proved to be a rich and capable asset, and in doing so developing an altruistic profile of himself that stretches beyond the soup deliveries people may know him for.

Image: Murray MacDonald

*The article was amended from the print version on 19 January to identity-first language (as opposed to person-first language) to reflect that for autistic people, autism is an integral part of their identity, and to emphasise that the barriers to autistic people are from society rather than their autism.