Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Eigg: Big Green Footsteps for us to follow

I doubt many people have heard of the Isle of Eigg (pronounced 'egg’), which is one of the ‘Small Isles’ situated off the western coast of the Scottish Highlands. It is only five and a half miles long, with 95 inhabitants, and it has a distinctive appearance, making it easy to spot from the ferry, because of ‘An Sgurr’, a great stump of columnar pitchstone lava. I spent just a couple of wet and windswept hours there last week, but it made a deep impression on me for several reasons.

Eigg has a troubled history. A lengthy feud between the McLeod and the McDonald clans led to a massacre of 395 inhabitants in a cave in the 16th Century. Fast forward to more recent times, and the island was sold by one negligent owner to the next. Keith Schellenberg, for example, the Olympic bobsleigher and gelatine heir (now there’s a C.V!), let properties run to rack and ruin during his time as ‘laird’, and drove many people from the island. His vintage Bentley was set on fire for retribution: not happy times.

Indeed, there are still signs of the dilapidation that the succession of ‘negligent landlords’ left in their wake; neglect, it seems, is hard – and costly – to rectify. Stumbling across a house where windows and doors, and even at one side, a floor were missing, but which still contained furniture, books, a cooker and a kettle, I couldn’t help but wonder at the tiny island’s sad, embattled past. (The photo of the staircase, above, is taken inside this eerie abandoned house).

In 1997, though, things started to change for the better. The islanders managed to raise the money to buy the island for themselves, and since then they have started to take, in their own words, ‘big Green footsteps.’

Houses on the island used to get their electricity from diesel generators, but now, with 3 hydroelectric generators (pictured above), 4 wind turbines and photovoltaic cells (also pictured above) on some buildings, Eigg is self-sufficient. Eigg homes only produce a third of the waste of other UK households, and are working at sending less skips of rubbish to the mainland. They plan to produce their own food in the future, meaning they do not have to have food ferried over as much.

No surprise, then, with such a small group of people working towards the same goals, there is a great sense of community here. The community noticeboard, which I perused on my all-too-brief visit, was a truly heart-warming sight. There were colourful notices for a singing group, community meetings, art projects and plenty of socials.

I am keen to go back to Eigg, possibly in the summer, when the community runs courses in sustainability (although the website about these courses is not up to date, and I wonder whether this project has got off the ground). Not content on just creating their own little Green utopia, the islanders also hope that their message and way of life will catch on elsewhere. In a leaflet I picked up there, they write ‘we hope what we have done will inspire you to do something, too. (…). Any community can be a green island.’

I quite agree – and I can’t recommend a trip to this little-known island highly enough!

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