Outside magazine, September 1997
E C O - T R A V E L N E W S
Midmorning fog and mist curl around the coast of the Isle of Eigg as the ferry approaches the Scottish island's jagged shoreline. A rugged native dressed in worn work clothes leans against the boat's railing, nursing a breakfast beer. As the ferry rumbles closer, he turns to a fellow passenger and sweeps his arm toward the forests, fields, and seaside cliffs. "Keep an eye out where ye camp; all of this is owned by the estate." Suddenly he grins and raises his beer. "No, wait. I keep forgetting. It's mine! Camp wherever ye please." He swigs triumphantly.
This summer, Eigg (pronounced "egg") renounced its title as the most troubled of the lovely Hebrides, a group of islands off Scotland's western coast. Like most of the Highlands region, Eigg had operated for centuries under a system of quasi feudalism, its 7,400 acres owned not by residents but by a laird, or landlord. In recent decades Eigg's landlords, according to the residents, had been primarily absent, apathetic, or outright hostile: In the 1980s, one landlord refused to grant permanent residents leases on the properties they occupied. When they protested, he called them "barmy revolutionaries," stopped trash collection, and declined to open a dump site. Soon the tiny, green island became littered with rusted machinery and derelict cars. Nonnative conifers, planted by an earlier landlord to qualify for a tax break, began colonizing the ecologically sensitive peat bogs. The island's only shop, a general store, closed. By the early 1990s, beautiful little Eigg was cracking, its economy and ecology both threatening to implode.
Now, just a few years later, it's poised to become a self-professed ecotourism draw — and one of the more interesting social experiments in recent British history. In 1996, the 63 residents joined forces with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and another charity to raise money to buy the island themselves; in effect, they hoped to make themselves their own laird. By the time the most recent landlord decided to sell the island to settle unpaid debts, the alliance had raised $2.5 million — most from British citizens who were heartily sick of the landlord system. And on June 12, the new Isle of Eigg Historical Trust officially assumed ownership of the island, immediately granting residents long-term proprietary leases on their properties. This is expected — or hoped — to become a model for similar community buyouts throughout the Highlands and Hebrides.
But first the Eiggers must prove that their experiment is both financially and ecologically sustainable — which will require an influx of visitors to an island that has no electricity, spotty phone service, and, as you read this, one cafë and only a few hotel beds (though camping is allowed on the beach). But Eigg does have great rugged appeal. Its 11 square miles are covered with woodlands, moors, bogs, and beaches — a pocket-size Greatest Hits of the Scottish Highlands. Heather blankets the hillsides. Hundreds of species of birds summer here. Otters and seals lark in the bays. And from the island's high point, An Sgurr, the largest pitchstone ridge in Great Britain, the jagged blue peaks of the mainland are visible — if the distance isn't hazed by a chilly Scottish drizzle. Sit through a few of those and you begin to understand the locals' fondness for early morning beers.
To familiarize visitors with this landscape, local ecologist John Chester leads interpretive tours. Make reservations through the Scottish Wildlife Trust at 011-44-131-312-7765. Or write instead. The islanders hope you will. "That's the nice thing about finally having a permanent address," one Eigger says. "We can get mail now."