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.
Read more: www.theguardian.com