Why Visit the Isle of Eigg? The Three C’s: Community, Climate (Action), and Countryside

DISCLAIMER: Due to COVID-19, I do not currently advise travelling to the Isle of Eigg for any non-essential purposes. The Isle of Eigg is a small island community, and could be devastatingly impacted by an outbreak of the virus. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and listen to Nicola Sturgeon. Ta! 

Believe it or not, I chose to visit the Isle of Eigg because it reminded me of my hometown – Oakland, California. If you don’t know about Oakland, look it up. As one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States, and home to many LGBTQ+ families, Oakland is well known for being among the most progressive cities in the world. Ever heard of the Black Panther Party? It was founded in Oakland. The list goes on, but – as wonderful as Oakland is – this is supposed to be a blog post about the Isle of Eigg! So, why visit the Isle of Eigg? Well, to answer that, I’ve broken it down into three C’s – Community, Climate (Action), and Countryside.

1. Community

The Isle of Eigg is probably most well known for the Community Buyout of the island in 1997. In September of 2017, shortly after the islanders celebrated 20 years of community ownership, The Guardian published a long read by Patrick Barkham entitled, This island is not for sale: how Eigg fought back. In it, Barkham explains:

Eigg has suffered more than most over the perennial small-island question of ownership. Larger British isles, such as the islands of Shetland and Orkney, or the Isle of Man, have (at least in modern times) avoided the vexation of capricious landlords. Perhaps their remoteness, or the strength of their local culture, militate against individual possession, but it may simply be sheer size. In contrast, the Small Isles – Eigg, Muck, Rùm and Canna – are perfectly formed and of an ideal acreage to be possessed by one person. For the last two centuries, these beautiful, fecund Hebridean islands have been objects of desire for wealthy men – and it has always been men – who love islands, with disastrous consequences for both sides.

Patrick Barkham, This island is not for sale: how Eigg fought back, The Guardian, 26 September 2017

Of all the wealthy men that bought, and later auctioned, the Isle of Eigg throughout the 20th century, Keith Schellenberg is by far the most notorious. On April 1st, 1975, Schellenberg (“a dashing, Yorkshire-born businessman and former Olympic bobsleigher,” Barkham writes) purchased Eigg for £274,000. (I used this inflation calculator to find out what £274,000 would be in pound sterling today, and it came out to £2,315,787.83.) At first, the 39 remaining islanders (“an all-time population low,” Barkham writes) were pleased that Schellenberg outbid the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which was only prepared to pay £200,000. The Highlands and Islands Development Board didn’t seem interested in the renovation or reform work that the islanders wanted (and needed) done, and so, they welcomed Keith Schellenberg, the new Laird of Eigg, in hopes of a better tomorrow. 

To his credit, Schellenberg made a few early decisions that benefitted life on the island, and remain a part of the island’s culture today. For instance, the previous landlord left the community hall locked, whereas Schellenberg gave the community hall back to the islanders, so they could play badminton in the winter and host dances in the summer. Cèilidhs remain a longstanding tradition on Eigg, and continue to take place in the same (refurbished) community hall today. The Isle of Eigg Community Hall plays host to few new traditions, as well, like the Isle of Eigg Makers’ Market that I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts (Isle of Eigg: Day 1, Galmisdale Bay to Cleadale, Part 1). Furthermore, Schellenberg implored the Scottish Wildlife Trust to create three nature reserves on the small isle, which remain there to this day, and attract a great deal of tourism to the island. 

However, despite a few early successes, the islanders eventually grew tired of Schellenberg’s frivolous whims and eccentric ways. Barkham describes:

In the village shop I met Sarah Boden, one of Eigg’s two farmers. She remembers a German playboy landing in the Lodge gardens in a helicopter. Two models dressed in catsuits brandishing toy guns stepped out first. “Schellenberg was very charismatic, a real showman,” said Boden, who recalled him driving around in an eight-wheeled ArgoCat, an amphibious all-terrain vehicle. “He’d drive it to the boat and park it in the most ridiculous place possible at the pier, just so the visitors would watch.”

Patrick Barkham, This island is not for sale: how Eigg fought back, The Guardian, 26 September 2017

During the summer months, Schellenberg frequently housed his high society friends in his lodge, which is now the Earth Connections Eco Centre that I mentioned in a previous post (The Isle of Eigg, Day 1: Galmisdale Bay to Cleadale, Part 2). Eventually, things came to a head one summer’s eve, when the island’s cèilidh band imposed a small entrance fee after agreeing to play for Schellenberg’s aristocratic guests. The band intended to donate the money towards a new community hall, but Schellenberg wasn’t having any of it, and demanded that the band return the money to his wealthy friends. The band walked off the stage, followed out by many islanders in a show of solidarity. 

Barkham puts it best when he writes: 

Behind the comedy was genuine suffering. In 1980, Schellenberg had divorced his wealthy second wife and, suddenly much poorer, was running Eigg on a shoestring. The farm manager quit, labourers were made redundant and the tractors ran out of diesel. His regime was propped up by generous government tax breaks for new, environmentally damaging plantations of non-native Sitka spruce. The rain came in through the nursery roof; old islanders’ homes were by now particularly dilapidated. Life “was quite grim”, remembered Boden, who spent the first six years of her life on the island in the 1980s. “We lived in five different houses and two caravans. Schellenberg would employ and sack people on a total whim, so there was no security.”

Inadvertently, though, he created an island community that would ultimately depose him.

Patrick Barkham, This island is not for sale: how Eigg fought back, The Guardian, 26 September 2017

By the early ‘90s, Schellenberg was busy battling it out with his ex-wife in court, and calls for land reform began to spread throughout the Highlands. Meanwhile, Tom Forsyth (“an unsung hero of the Scottish land reform,” writes Barkham), together with Alastair McIntosh (an academic from the Isle of Lewis), Robert Harris (a farmer from the Borders), and Liz Lyon (an artist), formed the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. In 1991, the Trust had one goal in sight: to raise millions of pounds, so that the islanders could buy the Isle of Eigg, once and for all. 

Unfortunately, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust couldn’t scrape enough together by the following year, 1992, when Schellenberg’s ex-wife forced him to put the island back up for sale. A few months later, Eigg was sold to the highest bidder: Keith Schellenberg. As the story goes, Schellenberg declared that he would take his Rolls-Royce on a victory lap around the island, once the car had some repairs made. However, in January of 1994, the sheds on Eigg’s pier mysteriously burned down, with Schellenberg’s beloved Rolls-Royce inside.

By 1995, Schellenberg had split with his 3rd wife and was in need of money. Determined not to let the islanders have their way, Schellenberg sold the island to Marlin Eckhard Maruma, “a fire-worshipping German artist,” Barkham writes, and a self-proclaimed “professor”. Like Schellenberg, Maruma turned out to be, well, not quite all he’d made himself out to be. Barkham explains:

…he was unknown in the art world, he wasn’t a proper professor, and he had used Eigg as security for a £300,000 loan at a punitive 20% interest rate. He promised to remove the island’s rusty old cars, but a pile of wrecks soon accumulated by the pier: locals dubbed it “the Maruma centre”. In July 1996, the island was put up for sale again, at an inflated price of £2m.

Patrick Barkham, This island is not for sale: how Eigg fought back, The Guardian, 26 September 2017

After Maruma received some rather bad press, donations began flowing in, through the mail, to the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. First it was £1,000 per bag of post, then £300,000. Concerts were held across Scotland, and beyond, to raise funds for the small isle. One anonymous donor contributed £900,000 to the cause, and eventually, on April 4th, 1997, Maruma’s solicitors accepted the Trust’s offer of £1.5m for the island.

The islanders’ officially owned the Isle of Eigg.

Now, what about that story doesn’t make you want to visit the Isle of Eigg? If I were Stefon from SNL, I’d say, “This place has everything: An Aristocratic Ex-Olympic Bobsleigher, replaced by a Fire-Worshipping German Artist, overthrown by a Collective of Islanders that once – allegedly – lit a Rolls-Royce on fire, just to watch it burn.” What is there NOT to love? 

On June 12th, 1997, the islanders celebrated their independence with 90 bottles of malt, gifted by the Talisker Distillery on the neighbouring Isle of Skye. You’ve probably heard of the Isle of Skye, and the Talisker Distillery, but I bet you didn’t know that the distillery was originally founded by two brothers from the Isle of Eigg. June 12th is now recognised as Independence Day on Eigg, and a cèilidh is held in its honour every year.

2. Climate (Action)

In the spring of 2017, I was stuck at home with a broken foot, and absolutely nothing else (productive) to do, but plan my upcoming trip to Scotland. I was about to spend three months, on my own, in my father’s homeland, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of choice there was when it came to picking a Scottish island to spend a week on. There were the Shetland Islands, with their famed Fair Isle jumpers and their barren Northern charm. There were the Outer Hebrides – namely Lewis and Harris – with their surprisingly sandy beaches. (In all seriousness, those beaches could give the Caribbean Islands’ beaches a run for their money.) There was the Isle of Skye, of course, with its otherworldly landscape, and then, on March 30th, 2017, there was the Isle of Eigg. Now, if you weren’t at home, with a broken foot, and absolutely nothing else (productive) to do, you might have missed this, but on March 30th, 2017, BBC Future published an article by Karen Gardiner entitled, The small Scottish isle leading the world in electricity, and that small Scottish isle was Eigg.

Sadly, I had already booked my trip to the Isle of Skye for the summer of ’17, but after reading Gardiner’s article, I kept it bookmarked, and vowed that Eigg would be the next island that I spend a week on. In the article, Gardiner writes:

In 2008, Eigg became the world’s first community to launch an off-grid electric system powered by wind, water and solar – and this group of residents largely taught themselves how to do it. Before that, without access to a national grid, residents relied on noisy, expensive diesel generators that only ran for a few hours a day. The electrification scheme made 24-hour power available to residents for the first time.

Today, this 12 sq mile (30 sq km) island continues to set an example, not only in how to deliver electricity from renewable energy, but how societies could meet their energy needs without access to a national grid – a challenge affecting nearly one-fifth of the world’s population.

Karen Gardiner, The small Scottish isle leading the world in electricity, BBC Future, 30 March 2017

As Gardiner goes on to explain, Eigg Electric, a subsidiary of the Isle of Eigg Heritage trust, provides power to Eigg’s residents through three renewable sources – sun, water, and wind. Eigg Electric achieves this through a 50kw photovoltaic array (read: solar panel), three hydroelectric generators that produce energy from running water (I saw the largest of the three on the Guided Nature Walk I covered in my previous post), and four small (6kw) wind turbines. Funnily enough, the designer of the scheme, and former director of Eigg Electric, shares the same name as my father, John Booth. 

If you’re interested in learning more, Community Power Scotland has an excellent case study of Eigg Electric on their website, including a timeline of the project, from the Community Buy-Out in 1997 through the launching of the off-grid electric system in 2008. 

3. Countryside

If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading. As a treat, I’ll leave you with a picture, because some things – like the Scottish countryside – just don’t need explaining.

I hope you enjoyed this post about the three C’s – Community, Climate (Action), and Countryside – that inspired me to visit the Isle of Eigg. If this post has inspired you to visit the island, please don’t be shy, I’d love to hear from you!

Thank you, as always, for following along!

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