Eigg at 25


Twenty five years ago today I heard the news that the offer made by the Eigg community had been accepted.

I had bugger all to do with their campaign but I had milked it for a few stories in the independent et als and wandered off to the news desk at the Hootsman where Lesley and Colin Carr were standing looking a bit shocked and we went off and had dinner with Andrew Raven who had chaired pro-Eigg meetings at my flat.

Many had predicted the failure of the buyout, said they were just a bunch of subsidy junkies. Some of them, dear God, spoke with Yorkshire accents, one or two even smoked dope. and surely it had been proven that the future ownership should lie with wealthy Viagra landlords (I have a house in the highlands but I don’t get up nearly as much as I would like) who would inject money and educated wisdom into the management of the peasants who would surely be incapable of making decisions or resolving disputes if left to their own devices.
Although it pains me to write it has to be said that the idea of the Eigg buyout didn’t have the full support of the gaelic community, though it did have some supporters.
Well you cynics go there now and eat your words. Population nearly doubled. Innovative ideas in housing, tree nurseries, integrated energy systems, awards for ecological sustainability, new village hall, shop with soon to be opened extension, hostel, brewery, rocking-horse factory (now defunct), bicycle-hire company self-catering chalets, mini-huts, restaurant. This from a community of around a hundred and fifty, a quarter of them old or very young. Sure they have had massive grants, but give them a break they have got out of bed and cracked on. And a huge amount of that progress has been brought about through volunteering and sheer good will.
The thing that I love about that community more than anything else is their sense of shared purpose and skills at conflict resolution. There are folk there who I irritate, and they me, but they would still give me a lift, and I them. I know islands where they are cursed with feuds and suspicions. Not so much Eigg.
On that day twenty five years ago when I heard the news I wept, and I damn near weep today. And that as Trump would day is Fact.
Sure they made mistakes, sure they are not perfect, but what have YOU done that have equalled their achievements in the last twenty five years?
Let them be an example as we stand before the economic abyss. Our future as a nation surely lies in more community, community action that will fight against the coming hideous poverty and loneliness that we all now dread.
We live in the shelter of our friends.
Hail to the people of Eigg. Thank you for your contribution. It’s never been more relevant. Happy Birthday.

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  1. Margaret McNeil says:

    Thank you, people of Eigg for providing us with the most uplifting news in weeks and well done all of you over these past 25 years. Here’s to even more success during the next 25.

    And thanks Maxwell for this heartening story.

    1. Maxwell macleod says:

      Thank you indeed Ms McNeil. But how do we take inspiration from Eigg into community action elsewhere?

  2. E Manson says:

    You mention that the buy-out didn’t get full support from the Gaelic community. Any ideas why? How’s the Gaelic language doing on Eigg now?

    1. Good question E – do you know the answer??

      1. Jim says:

        I don’t know the full answer but it does sound like the community is working to keep Gaelic alive. Children are learning to play traditional instruments and Gaelic. Here is a link to the annual festival https://feiseige.wordpress.com/
        Tha e sgoineil!!

    2. john maxwell norman macleod says:

      Very glad to have the opportunity to reply as I am currently fascinated by whether we should be spending more of the tens of million are putting into gaelic on facilitating gaelic speaking communities rather than expanding hobby gaelic in the urban areas. At the time my impression was that many of the failing indigenous gaelic communities were pissed off that so much of the press attention/money was going to a distinctly anglicised hebridean community, and I thought they had a point. My own view, largely inspired by that time, is that a greater proportion of the, lets guess at a notional £200 million, that has been put into gaelic in the last twenty five years we might not be in a situation where, what’s the figure, only twelve thousand people left in indigenous gaelic communities. Spare me the comment that cant we do both, in the current economic climate it will be amazing if the current financial input is sustained.

      1. Niemand says:

        All those Yorkshire accents. Damned Sassenachs coming up here and helping make Eigg a viable community again!

        1. john maxwell norman macleod says:

          Love it!

      2. BSA says:

        ‘hobby gaelic in the urban areas’.
        So what could have been a sensible case for prioritising the gaelic budget suddenly becomes a nativist slur and the ‘Central Belt’ says lets spend it all on the Scots language. After all we ‘can’t do both’.

    3. john maxwell norman macleod says:

      My understanding is that there are several gaelic learners on Eigg and maybe half a dozen indigenous speakers, but I just dont know.

    4. 220405 says:

      I remember reading an article somewhere a while back in which indigenous islanders complained that the régime on Eigg was a mafia rather than a democracy, that those who had been born and bred on the island had no representation on the ruling Trust, that the residents’ representatives on the Trust’s board were entirely people who had moved to the island since the Trust appropriated it, and that they had been excluded from the benefits of the Trust in favour of its directors and their family and friends.

      I don’t know if any of that’s true, but there does seem to have been a perception among the indigenous people that the régime change has served the colonists far more than it has the Gaels.

      Maybe decolonisation requires that the islands are repopulated from within rather than without, by the expansion and growth of the remnant indigenous communities rather than by migration and colonisation. Or maybe that’s just essentialist nonsense.

      1. It would be better to find such an article than regurgitate smears? These are pretty serious allegations to put out without any references. Having been peripheral to the process but knowing several people at the heart of this – this was not my experience of the process at all. Happy to be proved wrong but my observation was that the project thrived particularly because it transcended some of the dynamics you suggest.

        1. 220405 says:

          I’ll see if I can find the article. As I said, I don’t know whether the complaints/perception of the complainants were/was true or not. Maybe it was all just an attempt by some disgruntled ‘natives’ to smear the Trust.

          1. john maxwell norman macleod says:

            I think I remember the piece it was done by a gentleman with a foreign name who lived I think in the north west, but with respect the proof is in the pudding the core issue is that Eigg has been a huge success, so whether people were taking pop shots at it twenty five years ago doesn’t matter so much. I always love it when I hear the wonderful Maggie Fyffe dismissing too many questions about the past as she wants to crack on delivering good projects for the future. I’m intrigued by the suggestion though that some of the gaels wanted automatic representation on the Trust, I have no memory of that, and if it was the case where do you stop? What’s the red line, should someone be given more votes on where the new pier should be just because their Granny lived in a But and Ben in Cleardale in 1840? I would love to hear what Alastair Mackintosh has to say What is interesting though is that the big push came from entrepreneurs who were brought in by Keith Schellenberg. His PR was lousy and he had a short attention span. If he had played a better hand he could have been more of the hero and less of the villain. His last words when he left were reported to me as ” This is all so sad, I just wanted to be one of you.” I’ve always thought that if he worked in an Ad agency he would have made a great creative and a lousy account manager.

          2. 220405 says:

            It might have been Kirsty Scott or someone like that. It was definitely a female writer.

      2. Wul says:

        Some of those accusations are inevitable in any community run enterprise. There will always be a “clique”.

        A clique of those who can be arsed leaving the house on a cold, wet night to discuss and fill out a grant application or vote on amendments to the extremely boring constitution. And another group of complainers who see all that is wrong with the first lot, but do not wish to shoulder any actual responsibility or operate in the public gaze. I’m much more comfortable in the second group and it’s a much easier ride.

        “Incomers” are a bit like immigrants; they are people who have the energy and resources to make a big life change for the hope of a better future. We need them.

        1. 220406 says:

          Aye, but now we’re hearing (on another thread) that it’s ‘inward migration’ that’s keeping the Southlands Tory blue.

          Why is ‘inward migration’ colonisation in the case of the Southlands but not in the case of places like Eigg?

          1. Alastair McIntosh says:

            Hi, 220406, to answer your question about incomers, it is because most people are not racist, and they understand that to be so would rot their communities. Genuine community in time draws people into its form. That, as I see it, is the hope and the realisation of land reform, where communities are in their own driving seat.

            There is a world of difference between people who move in to an area just to buy a bit of the view and take what they can get – incomers with an income and nothing else – and those who come to play role in a living community, and who give as much as and very often considerably more than they take. On Eigg, as in many other parts of the Highlands and Islands, it has been that fusion of incomer and indigenous energies that has helped to make things work. That doesn’t mean it’s always an easy liaison, and I sometimes think that some education in how to relate in Scottish communities could be a helpful thing all round. If you’ve never known the reciporocity and codes of real life community, it an be hard to believe that it exists, and damage can be done in the process. I speak, incidentally, as a one-time incomer. My family came to Lewis in 1960 when I was 4. I was born of an English mother in Doncaster, of a Scottish father with recent Gaelic ancestral roots, and raised on Lewis until adulthood. That taught me so much for which I’m grateful.

            And to answer another question you posed, asking why the trust’s decisions can’t all be made by general assemblies, the reality is that many people wouldn’t have the time. Careful and caring decision making requires being well informed. As Eigg’s Maggie Fyffe (who came originally from the north of England) puts it, community land trusts require hours and hours of volunteer time. If everything was to be decided by a general assembly, or citizen’s assembly, or whatever, who would be looking after the kids, feeding the animals, out checking the boats in a storm, or whatever? That’s why most people choose representative democracy, and the great thing about a properly constituted land trust is that if you don’t like the directors you can vote them off, and if you want to stand for election as a director, you can stand.

            Furthermore, with really important decisions and where individual residents’ right to confidentiality is not an issue, a land trust – in the case of Eigg, a charitable company private company limited by guarantee can put things to a general meeting discussion and vote. Note that “private” in this instance is in contrast with “public”, meaning quoted on the Stock Exchange. Many Scottish charities are companies limited by guarantee. The GalGael Trust in Govan of which I am a founding trustee is one such. Indeed, when we first set up the GalGael not as a company (with limited liability protection for directors) but as an old style Trust, we lifted chunks of the constitution from the original Isle of Eigg Trust constitution. Why pay the lawyers twice? And I’d been party to both.

            On Eigg, I think that I am right in saying that a public meeting followed by a residents’ secret ballot was used in deciding to go for the new pier (controversial, because of the silting effect on what had been a sandy bay), and again, in rejecting a fish farm. However, I am no longer involved in running any trust on Eigg – that ceased with the buyout in 1997 – and so I can’t speak authoritatively, but I hope you’ll see the principle behind the points.

            I’ve answered you as best I can and must leave it there. Go well.

          2. 220407 says:

            Indeed, what prompted my original intervention was the suspicion that the reported opposition by [some] indigenous islanders to the Trust might have been motivated by the same sort of bigotry that we find being directed by some nationalists towards people who have migrated (allegedly as Tory ‘fifth-columnists’) to the Scottish Southlands from England. My intention was to draw it out.

            One of the virtues of migration is that creates tensions and dialogues that unseize and revitalise communities that have become ‘stuck’ and are at risk of perishing altogether. It sounds like this is what’s happened on Eigg. The other side of the coin, however, is that traditions become colonised by ‘outside’ ways of thinking and behaving, and this is a trickier dialectic – between indigenous tradition and imported innovation – for communities to negotiate. It sounds like this might have been Eigg’s experience too.

            Reciprocity is indeed the key to the sort of communication that genuine dialogue requires, and reciprocity requires dismantling and safeguarding against inequalities of power. The first of these is sometimes called ‘decolonisation’ and the second ‘democracy’.

            Now, I’m sure the community on Eigg is as democratic as it can be and that the Heritage Trust isn’t the agent of colonisation that it seems the disgruntled ‘locals’ (if such they were) considered it to be. Direct democracy, with decisions being made by everyone in general assembly rather than by some only on the ‘advice and trust’ of the rest, is perhaps the best way to safeguard against inequalities of power.

            But as you say, this is not always realisable. I spent a career supporting participative democracy in local communities; it’s not easy, especially in a wider society like our own that’s so deeply informed by a culture of dependency on ‘lairds’, ‘cooncils’, ‘meenisters’, ‘philanthropic committees’, and the like, and that’s so assiduously governed by bureaucracies of representative government that would much rather their dependents just stayed in the boxes to which they’ve been assigned. Capacity for independence has to be built, and challenging that culture can itself be received as an exercise in colonisation by ‘incomers’. And maybe it is.

            But whatever… negotiating the tricky dialectics involved is a big (and sometimes messy) part of civic life. Why should life on Eigg be any different?

  3. Niemand says:

    Thumbs up from me!

    Never been to Eigg but just before all these lockdowns I was waiting at a very windswept Mallaig harbour to catch the ferry there to take a look but the weather was so bad it was strongly recommended I did not go especially as the ferry was some very basic reserve affair with the normal one out of action. I chatted briefly to an islander on the quay as we watched the lashing waves and gulls swirling round that rather ugly industrial front and decided against it. He was somewhat taciturn and clearly very eager to get back to Eigg, the brights lights of Mallaig clearly not to his taste.

    One thing he did say was that someone on Eigg did trips out to St Kilda which intrigued me.

  4. Hector says:

    Eigg is a great example of how different scotland could be without all the lairds and their dreadful hangers on.

    1. john maxwell norman macleod says:

      Interesting, what exactly are you saying here? That all the land in the Highlands should be nationalised and put in control of the local community? In my experience the buy outs that have worked best, and I have visited many, are the ones where the community have got their act together and demanded action at the rubbish way they are being treated. Where the community buy out is effectively imposed on a community with the entire lump sum needed being provided by central government it doesn’t work so well. You cant invent a community. It’s like the St Ayles skiffs . If some big cheese gives a community a rowing skiff it has considerably less chance of being used than if the community has bust a gut raising the cash and building it. And I have that from Iain Oughtred who designed the skiffs.

      1. 220405 says:

        Wasn’t the community trust that bought Eigg from Eckhard a creature of the old Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust?

        And another thing: the population of Eigg can’t be currently much more than about 100 souls. Why does it need to be run by a trust (i.e. by a select group of people for the benefit of all)? Why can’t it be run by direct democracy (by everyone equally in voluntary association)? Direct democracies are less susceptible to the capture and abuse of power in communities.

        1. Eigg says:

          Maruma purchased Eigg from Schellenberg, but less than two years later was forced to sell the island when Hans Rainer Ehrhardt won a court order against Maruma who had defaulted on a loan. The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust’s bid of £1.5m was accepted on the 4th April 1997. No public money was used to buy the island, the £1.5m was achieved thanks to the generosity of around 10,000 public donations, including one very large one from an anonymous donor.

          Directors of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust are drawn from its three member bodies; the Isle of Eigg Residents Association, Highland Council and Scottish Wildlife Trust. The latter two nominate one Director each. The Isle of Eigg Residents Association – which represents all residents on the island – elects four island Directors who stand for a period of four years, and two alternate Directors who stand for one year. Elections take place annually. The Trust has an independent, off-island Chair.

          The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust has three subsidiaries (Eigg Electric, Eigg Trading, and Eigg Construction), all of whom have island residents as Directors.

          The current population stands at just over 110 people, almost double the population pre-buyout.

          The article you mention was published about 20 years ago. It was written by a female journalist reporting on the experience of another writer who came to Eigg and produced an inflammatory article which reflected his views on community ownership more than what was happening on Eigg at the time, where the Trust was, and remains, a democratically run body.

          1. 220406 says:

            That’s all well and good. It could well be 20 years ago that I read that article.

            And the trust model can be a fairly democratic form of ownership (depending on how representative the trust is of the general will of the community). It’s certainly a more democratic form of ownership than the one it replaced on Eigg at the end of the last century. I was just wondering why, with a total population of only 110, the decisions that the [representative] trust makes couldn’t be made directly and more safely by a general assembly.

            I know that Eigg’s public affairs and how they’re governed are really none of my business. But the governance of Eigg is being held up here as an exemplar that other communities could emulate. I’m just not sure that it goes far enough in doing away altogether with ownership as such and disappropriating power to the commons instead.

          2. maxwell macleod says:

            Thanks Lucy, as ever, for your work. Apologies for inaccurate population figures, saying it was around 150 when it was 110 oh and I should have kept my keyboard shut on how many gaelic speakers there are now on the island when I was just speculating.
            I’m intrigued by the notion that no money for the buy out came from any Trusts. Again just dont know.
            Agree Colin Carr that the nature of the management of the island should be more transparent, I hear so much uninformed nonsense spoken about Eigg I would like to see figures on cost benefit analysis and your housing initiatives and other projects being easily accessible on line. You are easily the best buy out, and have changed Scotland for the better, dont hide your candle under a bush . Oh and thanks, Eigg has given this old man lots to look back on and smile about.

        2. Colin Carr says:

          And another thing?
          Before asking silly questions like, ‘why is it run this way or that’.
          Maybe you should take a look at how it is actually run and how the ‘Trust’ is made up. You may be pleasantly surprised !

          1. 220406 says:

            My silly question was why CAN’T it be run this way rather than that. What’s the justification for the particular form of governance that’s being lionised here?

          2. Alastair McIntosh says:

            Maxwell says: “I would love to hear what Alastair Mackintosh has to say.” Well, I can tell you. The said Alastair McIntosh was approached recently by The Sunday National to write an article reflecting on the early days (1991-97) of the Eigg Trust. After sounding a first draft across the editor (which was sent off this morning), I intend sending it to Maggie (as secretrary of the original trust) and Camille (as Eigg’s historian) to check for accuracy and representation. If any other Eigg residents who were around at the time and who read this also wish to be consulted, they should contact me today – [email protected] – and I’ll send it through. I need respones by tomorrow to finalise copy for Friday.

            I don’t address the Gaelic issue in what I’ve written. I have addressed that recently elsewhere on Bella (article “Community of Contested Discourses”). What I can add here, is that Eigg’s focus on deepening the conditions that make community possible has brought together in a common cause people who are both indigenous to the area and incomers. In my experience and like in many other contemporary Hebridean communities, you won’t easily hear Gaelic spoken as a day-to-day language on Eigg, but you will find it highly respected, and as one respondent has said here, marked in festival events and more widely, through a powerful modern expression of wider Gaelic culture. By Gaelic culture, I mean not just in music, art and stories, but in an attituded towards being a community that is embedded as a community of place. As such, as an alternative to a dog-eat-dog world. An extended family like Colin Carr’s with the Kirks, and the Mackinnons, exemplify community values. It may be quibbled as to how “indigenous to Eigg” some folks are these days. Well, when an indigenous community has been beaten down and largely driven out over time, you can’t be too choosy. And remember that these days, most childbirth is on the mainland as the island lack’s maternity facilities, so “born on Eigg” needs to be a phrase that’s cut some slack. In my view, community is like a force field that shapes folks into indigenity if, that is, they are the kind who give and don’t just take.

            I am hugely impressed by what they have achieved. It goes far beyond early expectations and even, folks’ early wildest hopes. Eigg had a good press in the run up to the buyout, but afterwards, certain journalists tried to discredit it, especially whoever posed as “William Hikey” in the Daily Express, making out that it was some kind of a prison colony. To me, this indicated the success of the endeavour. They could be happy enough to have patted it on the head when it looked like going nowhwere (that is, back in the trust’s early days). But once it became a pattern and example to the nation, a social enterprise with powerful drivers such as affordable housing, small businesses, renewable energy, and sheer can-do empowerment, it became a danger to landed power because it showed that another way is possible. Then, for a short period, the daggers came out. That left some scars. But let them be a badge of honour.

        3. Alison Macleod says:

          These trusts are democratic, directly answerable to their communities, both informally on a day to day basis and formally, through AGMs and opportunities to join the board as a director.

        4. Eigg says:

          Reply to 220405

          In answer to your question “why CAN’T it be run this way rather than that. What’s the justification for the particular form of governance that’s being lionised here?”.

          On transferring from a private owner to community ownership, Eigg had to be purchased by a legal entity, with a memorandum and articles governing how it operates. The legal entity that was chosen is a company limited by guarantee without share capital. A company limited by guarantee is a membership organisation formed and registered under the provisions of the Companies Acts. It is incorporated and benefits from limited liability for its members – in Eigg’s case, the Isle of Eigg Residents Association, Highland Council and Scottish Wildlife Trust.

          This structure enables the organisation to employ staff, enter into contracts, own property and other assets, because limited liability helps to minimise the threat of personal liability for the directors. A voluntary association, such as you suggest, would not be able to do any of these things without risk to either the asset or individuals.

          The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust is regulated by Companies House, and subject to the Companies Acts and other legislation. As the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust is a charity, it is also subject to charity law and regulated by OSCR.

          There may have been other options explored at the time, such as a cooperative, but they may not have provided the strength of protection for the asset (island) or those elected to manage it, or may not have met the stringent requirements of charitable status.

          1. Alastair McIntosh says:

            Perfectly put, Eigg.

          2. 220406 says:

            Yes, a private limited company does provide the members of that company with legal protections that those of unincorporated associations don’t enjoy, and that this (certainly at the time, when fewer legal forms were available) would have been the most prudential form for the charity to assume to protect its members.

            What twitched my antenna when this was being held up as an example to the nation was my memory of reports that ‘indigenous’ islanders felt excluded from the company’s decision-making. Of course, these reports have been dismissed as mischief-making by an unsympathetic or downright antagonistic writer, which might well be the case for all I know.

            I suppose the issue is how inclusive the memorandum and articles that govern the company’s decision-making (let’s call it the company’s ‘constitution’) are. How are decisions made by the Trust? How democratic are its decision-making processes, as established by its constitution? Are decisions taken by everyone who’s affected by them in general assembly (i.e. by the 110 island residents together), or are they taken merely ‘on advice and trust’ by a more or less representative board and its officers? If the latter, how open and transparent (or ‘trustworthy’) is that decision-making?

            I’d respectfully suggest that decision-making by general assembly offers a far more democratic model for decision-making in our limited companies, unincorporated associations, and communities generally (including our workplace communities) than the trust model does. But I also appreciate that maximising democracy might not have been the most pressing priority of the company’s founders, which was rather to take over ownership and control of the island.

          3. john maxwell norman macleod says:

            I am grateful for your ever excellent words Alastair and as usual agree with almost all of them and hold you dear, but in the interest of history lets not conveniently whitewash the painful truth that twenty five years ago there was indeed a considerable antipathy from many , say half a dozen, of the gaelic speaking community on Eigg, and indeed from many in the broader gaelic speaking community to the buy out. I remember I did some work at SMO at that time and was under such pressure from many there because of my strong support of the Eigg buy out that I eventually had to hold a quite viciously received seminar in the old stable block.
            But it wasn’t all bad. At the time the gaelic culture was just finding it’s feet again and using those feet to kick out at pompous arses like me who were defending incomers making themselves heard, and fair play to them. Incidentally I endorse your observations about being born on the mainland doesn’t exclude you from a claim to be from Eigg. Again at the time I spent several hours working my way through the entire population of Eigg and found that well over fifty per cent could reasonably claim to be Eiggeachs.

  5. Niemand says:

    I wonder how the Eigg experience compares to Gigha, also bought out by the community, in 2002, so only shortly after Eigg but very little talked about in comparison?

  6. Paddy Farrington says:

    Might the mischief-maker have been Reiner Luyken? I believe his mischief-making about Eigg was discredited years ago; it is unfortunate (and he would be delighted, I expect) that it should still be quoted to set hares running.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Paddy, as nodded to in a repy post yesterday, I was going to lay down contributing further to this thread or the batting goes on forever. But I noticed you name. You’re not by any chance the Paddy Farrington (or was it Farringdon?) who was on the Students Representative Council at Aberdeen Uni in the mid-1970s when I was the Science Faculty Convenor on it, are you? A guy who back then had a great bush of frizzy hair, tall, and a good humoured nature even towards those of us who were not on the far left like he was? If you are, a warm hello. If not, my apologies for wasting your time. I often wonder where they all are now. Alistair Darling is the only one I notice in the public eye.

      1. Paddy Farrington says:

        And a warm hello to you, Alastair! Yes, that would be me, still frizzy-haired, though greyer now… Thanks for your kind words. I returned to Scotland after a 35-year absence, and found the country transformed and energised beyond recognition. If you’d told me back then in Aberdeen that I would one day enthusiastically embrace the notion of Scottish independence, I would probably have been utterly amazed…

        1. Alastair McIntosh says:

          Likewise! And how very good to know you’re back in Scotland. Go well, man.

    2. 220408 says:

      No. The report I read was definitely by a female journalist in an English newspaper – the Independent or the Guardian or something like that.

      (By the sounds of it, the island must have been hotchin wi journos around that time.)

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