Eigg: a sanctuary over the sea

Do you dream of a new start on a remote island? Paul McGuinness visits Eigg, Scotland’s "green paradise" in the Inner Hebrides, to find out what life is really like there

21st February 2013
Eigg, Inner Hebrides

If you’ve ever fantasised about leaving it all behind and setting up a new life on a distant island paradise, you’ve probably thought of the Caribbean or South Pacific rather than the Inner Hebrides. But that’s exactly where Sarah Boden is about to lay the foundations of her dream home.


Ten miles off the west coast of Scotland, a dramatic pitchstone ridge rises 400m (1,300ft) above the white shores of the Isle of Eigg – a 12 square mile haven for wildlife, with a human population of less than 90.

Beautiful surroundings


“The landscape is absolutely stunning,” says Sarah. “There’s wild moorland and this big, rocky outcrop, and then these white beaches. There are beautiful little hazel woodlands, and the variety of wildlife is just amazing. It’s also an interesting community, in which you have to participate to live here.”


Once home to the Picts and Vikings, the island has been owned by the islanders since 1997, following a series of problems that arose due to absent landlords. Eigg has since become an international byword for community ownership, sustainable living and land reform.


Sarah’s own life on Eigg began as a six-month-old baby, the latest generation to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps. Back then, Eigg was not the island paradise that greets visitors today. A succession of owners had failed to invest in the island. Houses were falling down and the place had become neglected. Enter Scottish land-reform champion Alastair McIntosh. He suggested the islanders form a trust and buy the island themselves. They set about raising funds and awareness of their cause, which soon caught the public’s imagination. The Eigg Heritage Trust bought the island in 1997.


Today, the Heritage Trust still oversees the running of the island. The Trust’s board of directors always includes several islanders, alongside representation from the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Highland Council. More day-to-day affairs are taken up at the residents’ association, which meets once a month.

Clean living


“The purchase has really empowered the community. Eigg’s become a sort of poster community for green living, which we’ve had to do out of necessity,” says Sarah. “We have the electricity grid, which is powered by windmills, solar power and hydroelectric. A lot of the houses have water-heaters on the roof.”


A green grant allowed residents to build polytunnels in which to grow their own vegetables. This is crucial because Eigg is an expensive place to live. You have to pay over the odds for anything you want delivered. “You have this long, long list that you keep tucked away for that mythical day when you’re going to go to the mainland, but you never have time to get half the things that are on there,” Sarah explains.


Living on an island brings home to the residents just how much waste humans create. “The amount of plastic that gets washed up, and sea animals washed up tangled in plastic, it really makes you think,” says Sarah.
For the islanders, making ends meet requires a healthy blend of ingenuity and old-fashioned graft. “What I enjoy is the total lack of materialism here,” says Sarah. “Everyone has to have about four jobs, and that means that people aren’t money-oriented. You can’t come to Eigg and make your fortune.


“The guy who does the roads also works on the pier, helps in the shop and is the forklift truck driver. People do all sorts.” As well as farming, Sarah works as a housekeeper in a holiday cottage and as a waitress in the tearooms. “In the run up to Christmas, you can make quite a lot of money from picking whelks,” she adds.

Challenges


But living on an island isn’t for everyone: “You often get people who come here buy a house before they’ve even visited the whole island. They usually leave a few years afterwards because they’ve no idea what it’s like to live here.”


A lot of the islanders’ time is taken up with practical things that are taken for granted on the mainland, such as getting your fuel barrels from the boats or lugging sacks of coal around. Sarah enjoys the busy lifestyle, which keeps the mind from too much introspection: “It doesn’t suit everybody; some people can find it really claustrophobic and isolating.”


The mindset needed to live on such an island is also what sees people return there: “As a kid, it’s a bit of a Shangri-La – you’ve got total freedom.” Although some young people later move away. “A lot of island children come back to live here as adults, because nothing quite measures up on the mainland.”


Now Sarah and her partner Johnny, a musician from Fife, are breaking ground on their house after years living on Eigg in a caravan. As part of a scheme to encourage young people to stay on Eigg, there is now a shared equity scheme, which enables islanders to build their own home on one of a number of designated plots of land, each within reach of a spring for the water supply and the island’s self-maintained electricity grid.


“Fortunately, my brother’s a timber framer, so he’s going to come and stay for the summer,” Sarah laughs. Until then? “It’s a case of waiting for the bloke who does digger work to get round to doing your stuff.”


Visiting Eigg

Eigg is a haven for wildlife spotters, with creatures of the sea and air vying for attention alongside truly spectacular flora, including 12 species of orchid. Bird lovers can spot golden eagles, red throated divers and arctic redpolls. Basking sharks, dolphins, seals, sea otters, minke whales and even killer whales regularly visit the surrounding waters.


First port of call is a walk to the top of An Sgùrr, the UK’s largest exposed piece of pitchstone, which rises to 400m (1,300ft) and dominates the skyline. Despite its daunting appearance, it is a relatively easy walk; a round trip will take about four hours and offers views of Rum, Skye and Mull.


There are plenty of historical sites to visit on foot or by rented bicycle. These include the eerie Massacre Cave, where the island’s entire population – 395 members of the clan MacDonald – is said to have been slaughtered by the MacLeod clan in 1577. And don’t miss the singing sands – a quartz beach that squeaks when walked on.
Refreshments can be found at either the tearooms or the restaurant. Both serve fresh soups, fish, hearty meat dishes and imaginative vegetarian options, all sourced locally and cooked to order. While away the evening chatting to locals, enjoying the music that often fills the air – ceilidhs are a common entertainment – or simply gazing at the stunning views while a wee dram soothes your soul.


Accommodation options include bed and breakfast at Kildonan House and Lageorna, which also offers self-catering. Backpackers or large groups can stay at the Glebe Barn, while wild camping is available across the island. You can shower at the 24-hour public toilets, by the grocers.
Eigg is served by ferries from Arisaig and Mallaig on the mainland, around an hour and a half north of Fort William. Crossings take around an hour; check www.calmac.co.uk for schedules and prices.

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