This island is not for sale: how Eigg fought back

The long read: Small islands have always been objects of desire for a certain kind of man ambitious to rule his own tiny nation. But the Republic of Eigg has run its own way

” It’s the difference between black-and-white TV and colour ,” said Brian Greene.” That’s what it was like after the revolution .” Greene was giving me a lift in his dilapidated Peugeot along Eigg’s only road, waving at every passerby. It was the kind of explosive Highland summer day when butterflies jinked out of the steaming greenery and every foxglove, fuchsia and yellow flag iris seemed to have simultaneously burst into flower.

Small islands are like celebrities: they loom far larger than their actual size, the objective is pored over by visitor-fans and they become public possessions, laden with reputations and attributes they may or may not represent. The Hebridean island of Eigg is second to St Kilda as the most famous of the smaller British isles. While St Kilda is renowned for its extinction as a place of human settlement, Eigg is celebrated for its rebirth. After overthrowing its eccentric, authoritarian owner two decades ago, this 31 sq km( 12 sq mile) patch of moor and mountain was reborn as what is sometimes mockingly “ve called the” People’s Republic of Eigg. This triumph of David versus Goliath has forged an apparently inspirational, sustainable community of 100 people. On first glance, it appears at once industriously creative and attractively lackadaisical: colourful houses, gardens filled with strawberry patches, hammocks made from old fishing nets and swingings from old pink buoys.

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 landowners. 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, Rum 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 humen- and it has always been men- who love islands, with disastrous consequences for both sides.

The islophile DH Lawrence wrote a satirical short story, The Man Who Loved Islands. It is a cautionary narrative: a young idealist called Mr Cathcart buys a small island in order to create his own utopia, downsizes to a tiny one where reference is realises the native islanders are taunting him, and finally moves to an uninhabited stone. Fredrik Sjoberg, an writer I visited on the tiny Swedish island of Runmaro, believes small islands possess” a peculiar attraction for men with a need for control and security” because” nothing is so enclosed and specific as an island “. The literary academic Peter Conrad offers a more Freudian interpretation, suggesting that an island is a” uterine shelter” surrounded, like the foetus, by fluid, and attracting humen in search of a mom or a primal source of safety. Novelists cocoon their creativity- and fragile egos- on islands, too.” I like islands ,” wrote Will Self,” because they’re discrete and legible, just like stories .”

One of Eigg’s old Gaelic names is” the Island of the Powerful Women”, which it was respectfully called by male islanders at sea, to avoid bad luck. But its matriarchy was despoiled by a succession of men whose craving for Eigg outperformed their entails. The English Runciman family were reasonably enlightened- Lord Runciman’s wife, Hilda, became one of the first female MPs- but they sold Eigg as a” perfectly secluded island of the Old World” in 1966. It was bought by an elderly Welsh farmer whose Hereford cattle promptly died of bracken poisoning. Disheartened, he got rid of Eigg for PS110, 000 in 1971 to Bernard Farnham-Smith, self-styled naval commander, head of an English charity that wanted to run the island as local schools for disabled boys. Eigg’s own school was so depleted that by 1973 it was down to one pupil. Islanders greeted the charismatic “Commander” and his stories of his navy days in China. Farnham-Smith’s ingenious ideas were a bit vague, however, and he was soon cutting costs. The island doctor described his regime as” living under foe occupation, without the gratification of being able to shoot the bugger “. It turned out that the most Farnham-Smith had commanded was a fire brigade, and Eigg was back on the market in 1974.

On 1 April 1975, Keith Schellenberg, a dashing, Yorkshire-born businessman and former Olympic bobsleigher, acquired Eigg. He was a charming, persuasive adventurer, who, over the next 20 years, fulfilled the narrative of The Man Who Loved Islands perhaps more faithfully than any other real nesomane( John Fowles’ word for island-lover ). Legend has it that Schellenberg received himself locked in his home at Udny Castle, a grand heap belonging to his second wife, with the deadline for a blind auction for Eigg approaching. Unfazed, he abseiled down the walls to offer Farnham-Smith PS2 74,000- PS74, 000 more than the state-run Highlands and Islands Development Board was prepared to pay.

The 39 remaining islanders- an all-time population low- were initially pleased. They didn’t want a takeover by the government, which had shown little interest in renovating their quay or reforming the high freight charges on the ferry. At first, Schellenberg promoted a prescient modern vision of self-sufficiency through tourism, the miracle industry then hailed by the authorities as the solution to the Highland ” problem “. Farnham-Smith had maintained the wooden community dorm locked, but in a popular early move Schellenberg dedicated it back to the islanders so there could be badminton in winter and dancings in summer. Dozens of ceilidhs took place during that first golden year. Unlike other Highland lairds, Schellenberg was a vegetarian who objected to shooting, and he encouraged the Scottish Wildlife Trust to make three nature reserves. Houses were renovated for holiday homes, and flashy barges, including a motor cruiser “ve called the” Golden Eye, brought tourists to the island. Job ads in national newspapers brought an influx of new residents to work for the new owner.

Maggie and Wes Fyffe were running a craft workshop on the east coast of Scotland when Schellenberg turned up and invited them to start a similar project on Eigg. Maggie has keen, twinkly eyes, a Lancastrian accent and an excellent smoker’s chuckle. She and Wes loved Eigg and felt an immediate sense of belonging.” Apart from the fact that it is beautiful, I just liked being part of a small community ,” she said as we drank tea in her croft. The couple had two children and, on Eigg, they no longer felt excluded from things.” Kids go to everything here because if there’s something happening everybody goes ,” told Maggie.” It simply felt right .”

In keeping with most Hebridean islanders, the Gaelic-speaking Eigg natives were far from insular.” It’s a real misconception that folk have about Hebridean crofter forms ,” said Maggie. She mentions an old islander who has travelled the globe and oppose in Palestine.” Person in general here are very hospitable, it’s part of the culture. They were really happy to see young people and kids arriving ,” she told. That outward-facing mentality is still a feature of the island.

Keith Schellenberg bought Eigg in 1975. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

By the summer of 1979, Eigg was open for business. The population jumped to 60 and the school, that crucial barometer of small-island health, abruptly had 12 pupils. There was a new tearoom and craft centre; moped hire, day cruises, sea angling, lobster angling and pony trekking were advertised as on offer. Guests could even help with haymaking or shearing sheep. Unfortunately, when the tourists arrived, these activities were rarely available. Staff turnover was worryingly high. New employees were housed in run-down houses with polythene for windowpanes. Schellenberg’s grand Lodge was open house for his society friends in high summer. One likened him to Mr Toad:” Keith actually wears those round goggles and he’s always arriving in places with a lot of noise and clouds of dust .” His prized possession was a 1927 Rolls-Royce. Guests would perch on the running committee as he drove them to beach barbecues or moonlit games of hockey.” We expended our days as if we were Somerset Maugham characters, sunbathing or playing croquet on the manicured lawn ,” said a friend of his.

In the village shop I met Sarah Boden, one of Eigg’s two farmers. She recollects 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 remembered him driving around in an eight-wheeled ArgoCat, an amphibious all-terrain vehicle.” He’d drive it to the barge and park it in the most ridiculous place possible at the quay, just so the visitors would watch .”

Schellenberg resuscitated the inter-island games that are commonly took place between residents of the Small Isles, and for his guests devised war game with yellow tennis balls, which were insensitively billed as” Jacobites v Hanoverians “. During the 1988 games the island ceilidh band, who had agreed to play for his wealthy guests, decided there would be a small entrance fee to raise money for a new vestibule. When Schellenberg discovered that his American friends had been charged, he demanded that their money be returned. The band strolled off stage and many islanders left the concert in protest, pursued by one of the laird’s aristocratic Scottish guests, who screamed:” Scum of the earth, half-baked socialists !”

Behind the comedy was genuine agony. In 1980, Schellenberg had divorced his wealthy second spouse and, abruptly much poorer, was operating Eigg on a shoestring. The farm manager quit, labourers were constructed redundant and the tractors operated 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 especially dilapidated. Life” was quite grim”, remembered Boden, who spent the first six years of her life on the island in the 1980 s.” We lived in five different houses and two caravans. Schellenberg would utilize and sack people on a total caprice, so there was no security .”

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

Many of the outsiders Schellenberg hired and fired, such as Maggie and Wes Fyffe, liked Eigg so much that they stayed, and scratched out a self-sufficient life on crofts in Cleadale, the fertile valley that had been the island’s traditional centre. Older inhabitants were greeting, if baffled to insure newcomers adopt the life they urged their children to escape. Old and new bonded over home ceilidhs while Schellenberg fretted about Eigg’s ” hippy ” population. He characterised them as misfits fleeing the mainstream,” straying itinerants who found the island a nice refuge but were not mentally strong enough to cope with the life and earn a living “.

The laird was struggling to earn one, too. Planned golf courses and tennis courts never materialised, and tourism petered to a halt.” I’ve maintained its style slightly run-down- the Hebrides feel ,” he claimed in later years. Eventually, Schellenberg’s ex-wife, who still collectively owned Eigg, took him to court, accusing him of mismanaging their declining asset. Across the Highlands, by the 1990 s, there were growing calls for land reform. Tom Forsyth, an unsung hero of Scottish land reform who had helped regenerate crofting on an isolated peninsula north of Ullapool, imagined that Eigg could become a new Iona- like that much-visited Scottish isle, a place of spiritual pilgrimage, ingenuity and prosperity. Together with Alastair McIntosh, a Lewis academic, Robert Harris, a Borders farmer, and Liz Lyon, an artist, Forsyth would found the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust.In 1991 they launched a public appeal: to raise millions of pounds so they could buy the island.

The following May, Schellenberg was forced by his ex-wife to put Eigg up for sale. In July 1992, it was bought by the highest bidder: Schellenberg. He planned to take his Rolls-Royce on a” triumphant tour” of the island, reported the Scotsman,” once it was rendered roadworthy “. The car’s days were numbered, however: early in January 1994 the sheds on Eigg’s pier burned down, with Schellenberg’s Roller inside. The police arrived to investigate but the culprits were never identified.” It was once the laird’s factor[ his estate manager] who ran about burning people out. Now it seems OK to burn out the laird himself ,” fumed Schellenberg, blaming” hippies and dropouts” for subverting island traditions with” acid-rock parties “. Eigg’s indigenous population responded with an open letter refuting his “ludicrous allegations”.

Schellenberg was ascertained not to let the islanders take over, and in 1995, needing fund after an acrimonious split from his third spouse, he abruptly sold Eigg to a fire-worshipping German artist and self-styled “professor” who went by the name of Maruma- Gotthilf Christian Eckhard Oesterle had read his new name in a pond of water in Geneva. Schellenberg returned to Eigg one last time to requisition an 1805 map of the island from the craft store. Islanders heard he was on his way and parked a disused community bus against the shop’s door to block it. Then they took the day off to watch what would happen next. A local police officer told the furious ex-landlord that if no one claimed ownership of the bus within 30 days he could remove it. Schellenberg stormed off, by barge.” You never understood me ,” was his anguished parting shot to the islanders.” I always wanted to be one of you .” Brian Greene, who came here from England as a young man responding to a chore advert, almost felt sorry for him.” He was like an alien. The Scots can be fairly hard on their thousand-year-old oppressor sometimes ,” he said.” Everyone has good points, but he refused to show his .”

Eigg islanders celebrate the purchase of their island( Maggie Fyffe at far left ). Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Maruma arrived with grand schemes. He declared it was impossible to own Eigg and vowed to improve a chance for the community, build a swimming pool, and replace the dirty diesel generators that provided electricity with an integrated system of breeze and solar power. The press discovered that, regrettably, Maruma was not quite what he seemed: he was unknown in the art world, he wasn’t a proper prof, and he had used Eigg as security for a PS300, 000 loan at a punitive 20% interest rate. He promised to remove the island’s rusty old autoes, but a heap of wrecks soon amassed 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 PS2m.

The Trust redoubled its fundraising endeavors. The story of the islanders who wanted to buy their own island was portrayed as a jolly romp in the style of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore, in which Hebridean islanders rebel against British bureaucrats. Eigg folk didn’t particularly relish this stereotype, but it captured imaginations and created money.

Maggie Fyffe, who became the Trust’s administrator, sorted through the mail from wellwishers: gifts began flowing in at the rate of PS1, 000 per post container; soon it was PS30, 000 per bag. Concerts took place in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Tyrone- and even Detroit- to raise funds. A mystery philanthropist, a woman from northern England whose identity Fyffe still won’t uncover, gave PS900, 000. According to Alastair McIntosh, most donations came from England. Foreigners were shocked by the feudalism that the islanders endured- the owners even chose which of them, if any, could feed Eigg’s seaweed- and worried about the possible fate of its pristine environment. The wildlife trusts, including the Scottish Wildlife Trust, were particularly effective at mobilising their members to help Eigg.

Meanwhile, the island’s Trust feared that Maruma’s German estate agent would sell Eigg to another international client. The agent described the Scottish islands on his books as” the Van Goghs” of 120 personally inspected paradises:” There is a sense of romance in buying islands. It is the ultimate buy you can stimulate, a complete miniature world of which you can be king .” Maruma’s creditor, a German garment exporter, ultimately set the islanders out of their misery. After Maruma defaulted on his PS300, 000 loan, the creditor used the Scottish courts to force Eigg’s sale. His solicitors accepted the islanders’ offer of PS1. 5m on 4 April 1997. Finally, the people of Eigg owned their island.

Community-owned Eigg is 20 years old now.Like a celebrity, it must handle renown, fans, negative advertising and hangers-on. A constant river of filmmakers, journalists, anthropologists and scientists pitch up to study the place, so I sense a certain weariness when I pull my notebook from my pocket. Sarah Boden moved back to Eigg in 2010, after years as a music journalist in London. She’s astonished by how many members of her former tribe arrive on storytelling business every summer and expect her to delightedly drop everything.” A plenty of them come with a script that they expect you to conform to-‘ As their home communities we are forging forwards and revolutionising X, Y and Z’- but usually the reality is a lot more complicated than that. They don’t really listen to what you say and go away none the wiser .” Or, as her partner Johnny Lynch- the musician Pictish Trail– put it:” I find it quite embarrassing because there’s folk here who tell,’ I saw you on the TV, you fanny .'”

At the time of the buyout, Simon Fraser, then chairman of the Trust, called it” a victory for all that is good in humanity and surely one in the eye for everything that is mean spirited and self-seeking “. The islanders celebrated independence day on 12 June 1997 with 90 bottles of malt donated by Skye’s Talisker distillery, which had been founded by two brothers from Eigg. The hangover, an eruption of mean-spiritedness, arrived six years later. A Scottish-German journalist, a critic of land reform, visited Eigg and penned an unflattering portrait of the new island rulers for Die Zeit in Germany, which British tabloids were only too happy to echo. Islanders were quoted speaking of a” conflict of cultures”- between Hebridean residents and incomers- and Keith Schellenberg chipped in, claiming Eigg had been despoiled” by people who had lived in Tibet and had’ Make love, Not War’ painted on both sides of their vans “.

The village of Cleadale on the Isle of Eigg. Photo: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Fables seep into our consciousness, and the newspapers’ cautionary narratives about Eigg appear to have lodged in the minds of many who briefly visit. I fulfilled two tourists on Barra who passed on rumor they had heard about Eigg politics, claiming it was a cliquey, “clannish” place. I encountered an ex-resident of Rum who declared that Eigg was ” a bit too full of scandals and growers and dropouts”, and indicated residents needed to grow up. Robert Louis Stevenson, who adventured through the isles of the south Pacific in the 1880 s, described the drifters in the Marquesas as” people’ on the beach'”- beached like driftwood- and more than once before I reached Eigg, I heard that familiar accusation: it’s full of people who flees to a small island because they can’t hack it in the mainstream.

There was another charge too: its residents were junkies, sustaining their laidback lifestyles with mainland subsidies. I chatted to the owner-captain of the little boat Shearwater on my way to Eigg and he criticised his larger challenger, the government-subsidised CalMac ferry. I presumed he’d assault Eigg’s subsidised existence too, but he unexpectedly defended the island: everyone talks about Eigg’s grant money, he argued, but no one on the two sides of the strait described by the National Grid or roads or hospitals as country handouts, whereas Eigg constructed its own electricity grid and doesn’t have hospitals or proper roads. Subsidies are hoovered up by whoever owns land in Britain. Eigg’s former owned, Keith Schellenberg, benefited from tax breaks on his forestry. It does seem unfair, then, to criticise the islanders for applying for the subsidies enjoyed by wealthier landowners. As islanders point out, taxpayers’ funds provided merely PS17, 517 towards Eigg’s community buyout.

Plenty of foreigners appear more positively upon Eigg. On my route home from the island, I stopped for supper in Glasgow with Alastair McIntosh, the author and activist who invigorated Eigg’s independence movement. I received him volunteering at GalGael, a charity are stationed in an old workshop in the redbrick terraced streets around Rangers’ Ibrox stadium. Young people were engraving timber and learning how to build boats.

McIntosh’s beard is turning white and he controls a hearing aid with his mobile phone, but he still possesses an aura of both vitality and peace, and is as inspiring as the best kind of evangelist. To my astonish, this human of Lewis was born in Doncaster to an English mother and a Scottish parent. When McIntosh was four years old, his father took the family to Lewis, which remains his son’s heartland, and worked there as a GP. The island provides the basis for McIntosh’s belief in the importance of communities rooted in a local culture that can transcend the spiritual paucity of global capitalism and its veneration of consumption.

He cherishes Eigg, which represents a rare win for activists.” When we set up the first Eigg Trust, the original vision was about renewable energy, cultural renewal and renewal of the spirit. Not only has all of it been fulfilled, but it’s been considerably outdid .” He’s not claiming the credit; it’s the islanders who’ve surpassed the Trust’s hopes. He lately returned to Eigg.” The ones who were heavy on the drink was currently heavy on the drink, but the thing that impressed me was the number of young people who were back, balancing newborns with a rich matrix of economic activities by which they held their lives together and built their homes, unfettered by an absentee landowner .”

The old divide between indigenous people and newcomers has disappeared on Eigg with a younger generation who are a melange of both. The supposed Hebridean/ hippy divide was never so stark or so simple, and many islanders running softly at the heart of the community are from indigenous families. Eigg’s success has come from a genuine fusion of Hebridean culture and mainland counterculture. Incomers who have fitted in with island life, and not just come to buy the view, have taken on the best Hebridean traditions of spirituality, cooperation, hospitality and music, and Eigg has attracted people wanting to participate in a less materialistic community. But to create a community less focused on money, people need a platform to share it, argues McIntosh, and that platform is” the land “.

The fact that the community owns the island of Eigg makes it different from alternative-minded communities in, say, Totnes or Hebden Bridge, or almost any place in England where daily life, and most possibilities, are mediated through the land-ownership of private individuals.The community-owned Eigg is” not a selfish attempt. It’s not about just wanting to be landowners, it’s about the community having life and individuals having life within that community ,” told McIntosh.” In Scotland, we spew the word out-‘ property ‘. You can’t own the land, the land owns you. What I found in England is there’s such a lack of physical space, and it’s usually upper-class-controlled. England has never recovered from the Norman conquest. That deeply embedded class system is so divisive .”

Singing Sands beach on Eigg. Photograph: Patrick Barkham for the Guardian

In contrast, community ownership enables Eigg to run its own housing association and offer inexpensive rents- currently about half the market level of” affordable housing” in this region of Scotland. Low-rent societies where residents are liberated from the grind of earning a lot to pay for a house are likely to be more radical, creative places: people have the freedom, and period, to seek less money-oriented goals.

McIntosh echoes an earlier novelist of the Highlands, Hugh MacDiarmid, by raising the question of what a small island might bring to a bigger one. His great hope 20 years ago was that Eigg would be” a pattern and an example unto one another”, to quote George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. The centre needs the periphery as a source of inspiration and renewal, just as the periphery relies on the centre. Eigg may be able to give the larger island at its side some practical lessons in affordable housing, renewable energy and land reform. A small-island manifesto for the “mainland” might begin with the realisation that we need to treat other people more carefully. Be open to outsiders and to the world. Live as generalists , not as sclerosed super-specialists. Expend more time outside. Reduce our intake. Construct our own energy or, at worst, buy it by the sack, and then we will use less. Consider animals and plants as well as people. Live more intimately with our place, for it is a complex living organism, too.

I spent several days strolling across Eigg’s moors to meet different islanders who run its democratically-elected “government”, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. Apart from replacing feudalism with scrupulous democracy, the Trust’s first priority after buying the island was to ensure that the islanders, who mostly lease their properties, had one basic right they never enjoyed under individual proprietors: security of tenure. They renovated dilapidated homes and constructed a store and tea room, with lavatories and showers for visitors.

The early years of the Trust were not riven with conflict, but the historian Camille Dressler revealed some tensions in her 2007 volume Eigg: the Story of an Island. The directors of the Trust realised, to their” bafflement and frustration”, that” the suspicion towards power-holders, which was once directed at the landowner , now discovered itself directed at the Trust “.

The Schellenberg/ Maruma era was, at best, a negligent one, and the islanders were used to sorting things out themselves. Many had enjoyed this feeling of liberty from bureaucratic conventions, and were not sure they liked the box-ticking demanded by democracy. As one islander told Dressler:” The more efficient we try to make this organisation, the more we end up like the mainland .” But Dressler now says any malaise about the self-governing regime has disappeared. Maggie Fyffe believes that almost every decision is reached by consensus. A high proportion of residents volunteer for the Trust or for various committees that manage everything from the island’s rubbish to its culture, but there are some refuseniks. Farmer Sarah Boden is currently serving as a Trust director.” We still struggle with an us-v-them mentality ,” she said.” Sometimes decisions get made and people moan about’ the Trust this’ or’ the Trust that ‘. You have to remind them that they are the Trust .”

Eigg has thrived, told Alastair McIntosh, because the community has developed a way to manage disagreements.” That’s of such importance. In my opinion, the main inhibitor of community landownership is that people are afraid of themselves, they are afraid of what might be set loose if they don’t have a controlling figure above them .”

Many portraits of island dystopias are suffused with this fear. On his tour of Scotland, Samuel Johnson wrote of the dangers of brooding bring along small islands:” The evils of dereliction rush upon the supposes; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness .” Mr Cathcart is confronted by precisely this in The Man Who Loved Islands. Perhaps DH Lawrence was scared of small islands, too. William Golding brooded much upon this threat , not only in Lord of the Flies, in which the schoolboy inhabitants of a small island rapidly turn feral, but in Pincher Martin, in which a wrecked sailor’s small island is revealed to be a hallucination of his own ruined mind, or perhaps even purgatory. In reality, the residents of Eigg have faced their inner demons and won.

I sat in Maggie Fyffe’s croft, where water-and-wind-powered fairy illuminations twinkled over the mantelpiece and the air smell of roll-ups and woodsmoke. Is Eigg a utopia?” Utopia is a bit strong .” She cackled wildly at my topic and then paused.” I think it is. I love it here .”

Main image by Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta on 5 October at PS20. To buy it for PS17, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders only. Telephone orders min p& p of PS1. 99.

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