Once upon a time there was an Irish king called Sweeney. Christianity was arriving on his pagan shores, and in anger or dismay Sweeney attacked a certain Saint Ronan. That cleric did what they did in those days: he cursed Sweeney, maddened him, and turned him into a creature half man, half bird.
In this form Sweeney roved through Ireland and, legend has it, leapt the sea to Scotland, to the Inner Hebridean island of Eigg, where he dwelt in a cave. Maybe there’s a touch of Sweeney in many of us, driven half daft by the modern world, seeking retreat. His name has been preserved in a new, purpose-built bothy on Eigg, a one-room off-grid artist’s retreat.
Being without his ability to leap so far, I sailed to Eigg on the CalMac ferry from Mallaig. The Loch Nevis runs three times a week in winter, and on a Saturday it calls first at the islands of Rum and Muck before reaching Eigg, so giving a four-hour Hebridean mini-cruise which, at £7, is surely the best landscape-to-cost ratio on the planet. We put in first at the brooding, mountainous bulk of Rum, then sailed down the west side of Eigg for its whole five and a half miles, before rounding the green south side of Muck to rejoin the Little Minch. It was cold out on deck, in the last days of March. Fresh snow dusted the Rum Cuillin and the mountains of the western mainland glowed white, and the sea was an inky blue. As we came to the harbour on Eigg, the Sgurr stood guard above us. A 1,200-ft prow of rock and the island’s defining natural feature, it rose clear and cloudless.
The arrival of the ferry is always an event on a small island. At Eigg we offloaded a consignment of Calor Gas, a stack of what looked like dustbin lids, some mail sacks and parcels from Amazon and someone’s new kitchen mop. I picked up my rucksack and walked up the long pier toward a modern building which was a shop-cum-café-cum-weekend-pub, and offices. A small crowd had gathered with motley tractors, pick-ups and dogs, a typical pier-head clutter.
I was to hear many accents during my week on Eigg—they are a diverse community. The first was Irish, and belonged to Eddie Scott who had arrived in his elderly Land Rover to take me back over to the west side, Cleadale, where Sweeney’s Bothy stood on his croftland. It was a journey of joyful simplicity.
There is only one road, four miles long, single track, like a string dropped across the island. It skirts the sheltered bay then climbs through a wood of hazel and pine, giving views of the Little Minch and all the mainland mountains. At the crest of the island it passes the primary school, crosses a moor, and then, with sudden vistas of the Minch proper and the snow-capped Rum Cuillin, it twists downhill again to level out through the mile-long township before it ends eventually in a farmyard.
We talked about the island, its growing population which now numbers around 100. The young are not leaving or, having left, are coming back. “There’s lots of different kind of brain,” said Eddie, who has lived on Eigg for ten years.
“Do you know anyone here?” he asked me.
“No,” I replied.
“Ha! You will by the time you leave.”
We passed a straggle of cottages, new and old, until Eddie turned uphill to a recently built house, two-storey, with fine view-giving windows, where his wife Lucy Conway greeted me. An engaging and energetic woman in her early 50s, originally from Edinburgh, Lucy had long harboured the idea of bringing artists and writers to the island. In collaboration with the Bothy Project the idea came to fruition, and the bothy was built on their land. I was the third guest.
“I’ve been learning all about Eigg,” I said.
“Well, there’ll be a test. Thursday night. You’ll know by then who everyone is and all their business!”
Lucy led me across her yard with its polytunnel and workshop, up a thin track through the bracken till we were in a dip higher on the hill, out of sight of the house. Sweeney’s Bothy was literally a box, with three wooden walls and one made almost entirely of glass. The glass wall was west-facing and gave views over the croftland to Rum, with its mountains altering to every change of light, and Rum Sound, blue with white horses, and on the far horizon the Western Isles. A soundless parade of clouds passed over the sea, and over the island, and made the box feel huge.
The room held a wood-burning stove, a sink, a platform bed accessed by a wooden ladder, a table to work and eat at, an easy chair.
“And here’s your shower,” Lucy called from outside. Next to the porch, on the decking, a showerhead was affixed to the external wall. An earth-closet and a wood-stack stood some yards away.
“I love it,” I said.
I spent the following days in a torment of opposing desires. On one hand I wanted nothing more than to stay put in the bothy. I wanted to write and read, but also to look out of the window every two minutes at the island views and birds and changing light and cloudscapes. I wanted to watch squalls blowing in, delivering sudden hail. Once, I saw a family of whooper swans flying white and bright across the Sound of Rum. I blinked, and they had vanished, like a vision.
On the other hand, and equally, I wanted to walk, and explore the hazel grove at the cliff-foot behind the bothy, and also the shore, the Singing Sands because of its alluring name. I wanted to meet the islanders, and to talk about the past and future—especially the future because there’s an undeniable breeze of confidence blowing through many of the Scottish islands. The new houses, with their solar panels and wind turbines, were a small sign of it. As Eddie and Lucy said, after years of insecurity and depopulation incomers were arriving, children being born, a new culture being grafted on to the old Gaelic stock. And of course, the whole country is talking about the referendum. In truth, I had wondered if visiting Eigg and speaking to the islanders would shine some sort of sidelight on the Scottish-independence debate, because they live far from any centre of power, be it London or Edinburgh, and because of the island’s recent history.
Eigg’s story is well known to any follower of Scottish politics; its name is synonymous with land reform. In 1997, it was the first island to achieve a community buy-out, putting an end to centuries of private landlordism. The trust bought the island for £1.6m—raised from 10,000 donations—from the laird, Keith Schellenberg. A few years on, one of the first acts of the newly recreated Scottish Parliament was its Land Reform Act, which established the right of communities to buy, and made available funds to assist.
But there was no Scottish Parliament when Eigg’s situation reached crisis point. The money was raised largely through public appeal: 100,000 people sent donations. Eigg’s community-trust members appeared frequently on TV and in the papers, not always in a flattering light. The buy-out took years. Now, community ownership is just a given. Seventeen years on, it’s just the way things are, and no going back.
Island life is changed in other ways too. Nowadays, the internet means nowhere need be remote, at least in communication terms, and a sense of self-determination allied to an environmental awareness gives a new flavour to places that in the 20th century felt exhausted. Eigg now proudly generates all its own electricity from the wind, the sun and the water, managed by the community.
As she gave me coffee in her double-height living room, with its beefy wood-burning stove, Lucy had said, “there’s enough electricity for every household, provided you don’t have everything switched on all at once. But then, you don’t do that on the mainland.” She said, “we win awards for our green energy, but we can’t afford to go and collect them. London is at least a four-day return trip, and the expense! But just having our electricity is reward enough.”
Green energy means no clattering diesel generators. There are no street lights. There is clean air, silence and, at night, stars and stars and stars.
The next day, Sunday, I woke early but already the sea was sparkling and the peaks of Rum Cuillin refreshed and crisply detailed. The day’s first sound, other than light wind, was a raven croaking as it flew.
On a hired bicycle I explored tracks down to the shore at Laig Bay. I saw no one, but was joined by a collie-dog who ran along the tideline, expertly dribbling a rubber fender that had washed ashore. Then I cycled up as far as the primary school, an older building made modern by its solar panels and surrounded by a few sycamore trees and an ancient hawthorn. The school-yard hens came out to peck by my feet, and a hen harrier glided over a patch of reedy damp ground. The Little Minch sparkled blue in a vast crowning Sunday silence such as I hadn’t heard in years. Then, back at the bothy, I lit the range and read for an hour or two, before strolling down to the Singing Sands.
I’d asked for a couple of introductions, to discover what people were interested in, what was occupying their minds now that the drama of the buy-out was slipping into history, so the following morning Lucy took me along the road to meet Camille Dressler, who has lived on Eigg for 35 years.
A muddied path led from the road down past a few dun-coloured cows to Camille’s low cottage door, where she welcomed me into her homely, untidy living room, a place full of projects and action. Camille is an activist and historian: she wrote the definitive book about Eigg. She is French, which you wouldn’t necessarily guess from her accent, but she retains a French sense of style and a certain attitude. We sat at her desk, lit by a tiny cottage window set in thick stone walls, and chatted. Camille is convinced the island has a particular role, something to offer as a place of healing and slowness, a place of environmental concern. Often she said the word “slow”.
“When people come from the mainland, we see their minds are whizzing—this! this! this!”
She was describing my own restlessness.
“Here, we offer the chance to ask questions. To connect with what matters; to live without damaging our own health, or the Earth’s. We can give people an opportunity to think about what we are doing.”
I told Camille that my walk on the Singing Sands had been spoiled by all the plastic trash there, washed up in the recent winter gales. The sands are white quartz, and are reputed to sing, or squeak anyway, when you walk on them. But they were not so much singing as groaning in dismay.
“Oh, the plastic! And it comes from everywhere: not here! Let me show you this…”
Camille turned on the computer and showed me a PowerPoint she had made with the island’s schoolchildren, about exactly that issue: plastic trash in the ocean. It featured the children’s drawings of birds and turtles which had ingested the stuff, and the strew of garbage washed up on supposedly pristine shores.
She said, “You’d think on a place like this you can get away from the world, but the world follows.”
“What can you do? It seems hopeless…”
But Camille is not inclined to hopelessness.
“We are ordinary people, this is an ordinary island—but it’s a lever from where we can make changes. Little by little. We must do what we can. Give people a place where they can think about things and ask questions. And understand that we have a choice. You know, here we have shown what people can do, and can be, with participatory democracy.”
“I admire that,” I said, “but I can’t be bothered with committees.” She laughed. “Yes, it is very slow, if you have an idea that needs consensus”—she waved her hand as if to encompass the whole island—“but that is our choice. This is the most subversive thing. We discovered that we have choices.”
I asked about the referendum, though as soon as it left my lips the question felt redundant. People who long ago learned that important decisions about their own communities could be made by themselves, by consensus, were not likely to be Unionists.
“Almost all Yes, a few Nos,” Eddie had said of Eigg’s islanders. No surprise there then; and no surprise that everyone knew each other’s minds.
“In a place like this,” Camille said, “where everyone knows so much about each other, any new fact, any new piece of knowledge is...” She gestured again, to suggest amplified, repeated, writ large, and with that gesture conveyed a complex truth: that in a place of such exposure, it was also necessary for community health to protect people’s privacies.
I had taken Camille’s time, but her time, as with many of the islanders I met, was generously given. Not because they have nothing better to do; they are a busy lot. Lucy Conway had taken the ferry to Muck, there to teach a computing class at the small school. Eddie Scott is one of the islanders who look after the electricity system, and today he was up at the wind turbines (there are six) escorting some engineers who had arrived from the south. The visitors were from Williams Advanced Engineering, and as I understood it they were intending to use Formula One technology to develop a battery system which would store the island’s excess electricity against times of need, so ensuring a smooth flow. During my stay, I never even saw the wind turbines. They must be well hidden.
Camille was preparing to walk over the island to The Lodge, where a dozen dancers were staying.
“Dancers?” I said.
“Yes! Why don’t you come?”
The fascinating thing about Scottish islands is that they are at the forefront of change. Let no one indulge the fantasy that they are “remote” or “timeless”. On the contrary, change is profound and often difficult, as it has been for Eigg. Because of this, they can be places of great irony too. The chief irony, to my mind, had to be symbolised in The Lodge.
Built in the 1920s by Eigg’s then owner, Sir Walter Runciman, the house is in lush woodland in the island’s most sheltered quarter. It’s a colonial-style villa. Island girls went into service there, scrubbing its huge bathtubs. But, with no wealthy landlord, there was no need for a “big house”, and The Lodge had fallen into poor repair before being taken on by a young couple, Norah Barnes and Bob Wallace. Their vision was to establish a centre for ecology and alternative energy, where people could take courses in forest gardening, say, or beekeeping. A hand-painted sign under the pillars of the once-grand front door reads “Earth Connections Eco-Centre”.
One thing everyone mentions about The Lodge is the work that this couple have put in; the years of treating dry rot and installing insulation, the retro-fitting of renewable-energy systems. On the back roofs are banks of solar panels; there are greenhouses and a shed of firewood from the woods. There is a forest garden where they grow as much fruit and veg as they can. Norah, dark-haired in a red pinny, greeted us in her kitchen, where she was stirring a vat of soup. To the right of the range rose a stack of six wooden trays taken from beehives, filled with honey. With its new baked bread and jars of lentils, Norah’s kitchen had the air of a farmhouse in a children’s story, homely and warm but with the promise of adventure. And indeed, Norah’s first words as Camille and I entered were, “Have you heard about the bomb?”
This was the day’s excitement. A gale had exposed a second-world-war mine on Laig beach and someone had sent a photo of it to experts on the mainland, who’d decided it needed dealing with pronto, and were proposing to arrive by helicopter. The news spread swiftly round the island. “That old thing?” one person said. “We’ve been dancing round it for years.”
“So,” I said, “on the island right now you have a dozen dancers, a poet, Formula One engineers and a bomb-disposal squad?” Camille and Norah just laughed. Situation normal.
The dancers were an elegant company, mostly young, and from different parts of Britain. They moved and flexed their bodies all the time, even when talking. They were here taking a course, “Dance, Body and the Environment”, under the aegis of an American choreographer. As they went off to their afternoon sessions, I spoke with Norah about her hopes for The Lodge. They’re raising their three boys here, and want to enable people to reconnect with the natural world. Beekeeping, organic gardening, food issues, promoting alternatives in a positive way. “No hair shirts; we’re saying, be a bit more aware of what’s going on around you, where things are coming from.”
I walked back to the bothy in light rain. “Just stick out your thumb,” Norah said. “Anyone’ll give you a lift.” But I was enjoying the walk, and trying to be aware of what was going on around me: birdsong from a tree by the church, a scrap of rainbow. Besides, no vehicle passed except a tractor going the wrong way, with half a dozen cows ambling behind. For a mile over the cusp of the island no sea was visible. Westward lay two rough uninhabited miles, with the island’s forestry plantations and the Sgurr rising above. Northward, a wing of moor-like expanse. I returned to the bothy and, after dark, once the range was lit, took a warm, short shower by starlight. It was as though the stars themselves were raining down on me.
By the week’s end, had there been a test, I’d surely have passed. I could have listed the island’s problems: National Health Service cover, housing difficulties—not least because banks won’t lend. These are mainland problems too, but islanders are quick to tell you that islands are different—centralised mainland solutions don’t apply.
On Friday morning, at a picnic table outside the pierhead café in the spring sunshine, I waited for the ferry in the company of a dozen people I could now name. The elders favoured the back of the café building, a suntrap with views of the sea. Business was conducted, messages and news exchanged. Jumpers, jeans and wellies were the most common attire. At the front of the building, young families conversed, with their toddlers and a babe-in-arms. No teenagers though, they were boarding at a school in Fort William. Dogs wandered at will or yelped from the backs of pick-up trucks. I liked these people, with their mixture of passion, tenacity, oddball talents and skills.
I liked the bothy. Sweeney’s is a nice story but there wasn’t a hint of madness there. It felt more like an outbreak of sanity. But for the promise of CalMac chips on the ferry, I might have been tempted to stay.