Paul Belz explores the Isle of Eigg and discovers a thriving island community benefitting from renewable energy and local, organic food
Night barely comes to Scotland's ruggedly beautiful Isle of Eigg in July. I was writing at a picnic table in front of a stone cabin at Eigg Organics. A white waterfall crashed down dark, ancient volcanic slopes behind me. The sun was a bright patch, approaching the ocean's gray horizon at 11 pm. Enough light remained that I could still see white and purple clover, foxgloves and buttercups in green fields. Free-range chickens pecked at the ground by my feet while people walked and chatted along an unpaved road.
Many see Eigg, the second largest of the Small Islands, as a model for the Scottish Highlands' move from feudal-like land ownership towards environmentally sustainable community democracy.
Eigg's people developed a culture rich in poetry, music and folklore as they experienced Viking invasions and settlement, and clan wars. They connected to the rebellion Prince Charles Edward – Bonnie Prince Charlie – led against Britain's Hanover Dynasty.
This uprising's failure contributed to the decline of the old clan system. Communal lands were broken into individual farms, or crofts, and the clan leaders' successors demanded rent. Eigg's crofts were too small to give farmers a dependable income.
Farmers also had to relate to privileged people who bought and controlled Eigg. Some lords maintained a fairly just relationship with the crofters; others saw the island as a hunting resort, and a place to raise sheep for profitable wool. They encouraged and sometimes pressured crofters to move to Canada and other distant destinations.
Keith Schellenberg, the wealthy bobsled enthusiast, bought Eigg in 1975. He planned to make the island a center for nature loving travelers, and to improve conditions on the crofts, but many of his projects stalled.
Life on Eigg changed as community groups formed, based on crofters' and newcomers' love for Eigg's challenging and simple life, beauty, and culture.
A growing sense of independence and pride strengthened the idea that the residents' community should own and run Eigg. Eventually, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust began to raise funds to buy Eigg.
Music benefits, funding appeals, and one resident's parachute jump gained national and international support and funds. Eigg's sale to the community was completed on June 12, 1997.
The island has accomplished much since the purchase. The Scottish Wildlife Trust hired islanders to restore forests and other wildlands degraded by sheep herding. Residents are proud of the new multipurpose center: a post office craft shop, and tearoom that greets guests as they leave ferries on the renovated piers.
I was very impressed by the recycling bins and a poster explaining the importance of keeping plastics out of the ocean, and by the tearoom's inclusion of vegetarian lasagna and veggie burgers on the menu.
Sue Holland and Neill Robertson, who own Eigg Organics, drove my partner Kate and me across Eigg. The paved roads are narrow; we had to frequently pull into turnoffs to let tractors and other farm equipment to pass us. The road was quiet enough that we could hear the bleats from the uncounted sheep that gathered to stare at us. Eigg's interior peaks towered over the road; one looked like a ragged Rock of Gibraltar.
“Neil came to work as gardener/handy man for Keith Schellenberg, the owner,” Sue said. “I came after I met Neil. At Eigg Organics we try to live and promote a sustainable lifestyle – producing our own food, using renewable energy and delivering courses. We also have accommodation we rent out – a bothy, yurt and caravans. The caravans also double as accommodation for volunteers who support us.
She continued: “As residents we are members of the Isle of Eigg Residents Association which elects the Directors of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. Residents meet regularly to discuss, vote and agree on issues affecting the community. We can ask Trust directors to take our views and concerns to meetings.”
We all laughed when I asked if the Trust relies on the consensus process to make decisions, and Neil replied, “Oh, no! We vote!”
Eigg made a major transition in energy production on February 1, 2008 when the island electrification project offered residents 24-hour power. The previous noisy, polluting diesel generators had only provided energy for a few hours each day. Winter's heavy rains fill the rivers and move hydroelectric turbines; wind and solar panels supplement them in a world-recognized program of multiple alternative energy sources.
The whole community supported this project which now offers 85-90 per cent of Eigg's electricity from renewables.
The residents followed this initiative by insulating houses, reducing their use of fossil fuels, and creating a farmer's market and community gardens, becoming more self-sufficient in food production. They won Scotland's Big Green Challenge – a competition to reward efforts to combat climate change – and a £300,000 award in 2010.
John Chester, of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, has been involved with Eigg since the early 1980s. Since the buy-out, the wildlife trust has been represented on the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust board and also employed John as seasonal ranger on the island.
John said: “Scottish Wildlife Trust's involvement on the island has included both physical management and continuing wildlife surveys and monitoring. Management has mostly centered around sorting out and overseeing an island-wide woodland policy. This has involved restructuring the existing forestry plantation by clearing areas of introduced conifers and replanting with native trees, creating rides and clearings, and allowing natural regeneration to take place.”
There are weekly hikes where citizens and visitors can experience the native wildlife. Corncrakes are land birds that hide in fields of orchids and grass. Manx shearwaters nest in colonies on coastal cliffs to avoid predators. Land mammals like rabbits and bats make their homes here, along with Britain's smallest mammal, the pygmy shrew. Orange tip and painted lady butterflies add color in summer, while otters, seals, and minke whales come by the coast.
Kate and I walked to a beach from Eigg Organics, accompanied by a neighborhood border collie which we named Rocky. This companion insisted that we toss stones for her to fetch.
We watched the endangered ringed plovers that called to each other, and the oystercatchers that probed the rocks for barnacles and mussels. Wind scattered clouds engulfed nearby Isle of Rum, parting sometimes to show its volcanic cone shaped peak.
Lucy Conway, a longtime resident told us how Eigg's main industries are tourism and agriculture and there are a significant number of people working in the creative industries – making a living from crafts, music (traditional and indie, including the record label Lost Map), graphic design, film/photography, creative project management and arts projects.
Lucy said: “Housing is always a challenge – there aren't enough houses for all the people who want to come and live on the island. But several people have built their own houses in recent years.
“We have just under 100 people living here at the moment. This has increased by about 30 per cent since the buyout of 1997, with a lot of young people returning or not leaving and setting up homes and businesses here.”
Eigg's distance from the homeland does offer challenges in terms of education, food distribution, and healthcare.
“There is a primary school for 5-11 years olds, plus a nursery for 3-4 year olds,” Sue Hollands said.
“It is a one class school, so all ages are taught at one time. There are presently two teachers who job share. After primary, the children attend Mallaig High School on the mainland where they board at a purpose built hostel and come home every second weekend.”
Sue told us how there is one well stocked shop, with some people also ordering food through a wholefood cooperative and many doing supermarket shops when on the mainland.
Regarding healthcare, she said: “A GP comes to Eigg once a week but residents can contact the surgery, based on the Isle of Skye, by phone or video conference. Three Rural Support workers also deal with day-to-day dressings, taking blood and so on. Nine people are also trained as First Responders to deal with emergencies until paramedics arrive, usually by helicopter.”
Eigg's residents, who constantly debate and compromise on environmental and social issues, welcome travelers.
Many bed and breakfasts give guests the chance to experience wild beauty, and a community that is moving from dependence on landlords towards community democracy. Life on Eigg shows that a slow, simple lifestyle can strengthen a passion for change!
Rum from Eigg
Cabin at Eigg Organics
Eigg from the ferry
Paul used Eigg: The Story of an Island by Camille Dressler, published by Birlinn Limited as a source of information for this article.
Paul Belz is an environmental educator and writer based in Oakland, California. Paul develops and teaches natural history workshops for preschool and school-age children, and their parents and teachers. His articles have been published by Terrain Magazine, East Bay Monthly, Childcare Exchange Magazine, Boots’n’All, Oakland Wild’s blog, and Green Global Travel. He is editing a book on bioregional education with Judy Goldhaft of San Francisco’s Planet Drum Foundation, and his poetry has appeared in a wide range of magazines. Paul is a world traveler, and an enthusiastic backpacker and camper. His other interests include cooking vegetarian feasts, long walks around his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Beethoven. Paul can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is at www.seabird6.wordpress.com. Twitter @PaulGBelz
Green Adventures May 2016