Green Eigg | How One Small Scottish Island Is Leading The Way On Sustainable Energy
In 1997, Eigg was bought by the community that lived there. Since then, it's become the first island in the world to produce all of its own electricity from green energy
From atop An Sgurr, Scotland’s Table Mountain, 393m of sheer pitchstone lava, Eigg unfurls below in a wave of empty beaches, rugged hills and wildlife-rich moor. This real life Treasure Island – the locals hail Eigg their “big small island” – is awash with ancient tales of Vikings and warring clans, but it’s the isle’s recent story that most beguiles. Almost a quarter of a century on from a community buy-out Eigg is thriving, the first isle in the world to generate all its electricity from sustainable sources I’m sailing back across the Sea of the Hebrides to delve deeper into Eigg’s green revolution.
“I’m sailing back across the Sea of the Hebrides to delve deeper into Eigg’s green revolution”
Eigg has always been an island that captures the imagination, the sort of escape that fires wee minds in books at school. Its twin hulks of An Sgurr (the largest pitchstone column in Britain) and Bein Bhuidhe soar for the heavens. Below rock-scythed slopes and moorland make every hike an adventure. The Atlantic savages the coast, indented with caves bursting with myth and legend. The ‘Massacre Cave’ is aptly named – on a winter’s day in 1577, hundreds of hiding McDonalds died when warring neighbours from Skye lit a fire at the entrance. Life can be brutal and unforgiving in this wild corner of the Atlantic; the fact life clings on at all a testament to the human spirit.
Stepping on to the pier you cannot miss this spirit. And Eigg’s green credentials, which have mushroomed since the community bought out their own island in 1997. Signs explain what they’ve achieved and ask you to join in its dramatic green revolution. The biggest sustainability story is Eigg Electricity. Eigg reached that milestone – the world’s first island producing all of its own electricity from green energy – in 2008. There is wind – you get plenty of that in the Hebrides – plus traditional hydro power, even also solar power.
“Almost a quarter of a century on from a community buy-out Eigg is thriving, the first isle in the world to generate all its electricity from sustainable sources”
Chris Gray, skipper of the Fleur de Lys, has witnessed these developments on his trips to the isle: “It’s a proper operation. They’ve really gone to town doing it properly with money from the EU and Scottish Government and have won awards for what they’ve done”. The Fleur de Lys is an ideal low-impact way of discovering Eigg, a small eight-passenger cruise ship that offers five night cruises to the Small Isles, with time exploring Eigg and her Small Isles siblings, smaller Muck and Canna, and hulking big brother Rum, whose Cuillin mountains match those of Skye across the water. Operating out of Mallaig – as does the public ferry – the ship sweeps guests around with a local crew and lashings of local produce.
I’ve come this time on this small ship after half a dozen trips by ferry and each time Eigg manages to be even more appealing. Peering above the pier are the wooden pods I stayed at last time. They’re all very Eigg: simple and practical (great value too), there are spectacular views back to the mountainous mainland and a night sky with virtually no light pollution. Cosied down you’ll sleep well knowing you’re funnelling money back into Eigg as they are community-owned.
Just by the pods vaults a standing stone erected to mark that buy-out. It freed Eigg from a succession of dubious landlords and centuries of misrule. That’s sadly not uncommon in the Hebrides, and that misrule slashed the population from 500 as the nineteenth century dawned, to less than 50 hardy souls. Together with the Scottish Government, the Scottish Wildlife Trust (who today help protect the island’s flora, fauna and landscapes), and a mysterious anonymous benefactor, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust managed to seize control on 12th June, 1997.
In the couple of decades since the buy-out the population has not just stabilised, but grown by over 60% to almost 120. There are plans for new build homes (sustainable, of course) and resurrected empty buildings to house more residents. As I visit, another dwelling has just ‘come on the market’. Second home owners need not apply – you need to demonstrate your commitment to making Eigg your home.
“Second home owners need not apply – you need to demonstrate your commitment to making Eigg your home”
Eigg’s wave of new arrivals are not retirees in search of peace and castaways on the run – we’re talking young families and dynamic couples seeking to forge new life in these inhospitable climes. One of them is Owain – it’s very much first name terms on Eigg. “It’s easy to see what I love about Eigg”, he smiles, as we watch an otter work his way along the craggy coast just behind us. “And for visitors climbing An Sgurr is a joy on a good day, as are the other hikes. On a wet day our Jurassic Coast is remarkable too. We’ve wee museums and there are always things going on in the village with our dynamic community too.”
Owain helped found Eigg Adventures, one of the sprinkling of new business that cater for the rise in interest in the unique isle. They rent bikes and kayaks down by the pier, giving new arrivals access to the wilder parts of the island – you’re not allowed to bring a car ashore so the assistance is welcome. Even if you had a car there is only one real road, a sinewy single track that winds up from the pier at Galmisdale, the only village of note, across the spine of the island searching out its western shores.
I vaulted over the hills, worth the effort as soon as you reach the small staff-less heritage centre. You learn not only about the island’s typically tumultuous history, but also its unique geology (it’s part of the larger Lochaber Geopark) and its dinosaurs – renowned geologist Hugh Miller worked here extensively studying it all in the 19th century. In 1840 a fossilised Plesiosaur was found, joined in 1912 by another swimming dinosaur. It doesn’t stop there as in 2020 a fossil of a 166-million-year-old Stegosaurus bone was unearthed that proved dinosaurs roamed Eigg during the Jurassic Age, much earlier than previously thought.
Heading out further west we hit the coast again in the Bay of Laig, home to the famous ‘Singing Sands’. I find the white quartz beach in truth more squeaks than sings, but it’s a spirit-soaring spot – as you peer out gasping at the hulking hills of Rum it feels like you can almost touch them. Cleadale just to the north is worth visiting for its Crofting Museum and to look out for dinosaur footprints and more fossils.
Back In Galmisdale progress is finally being made on the new An Laimhrig community complex, with its shop and café. Delayed by Covid, this dramatic new construction is the work of mercurial Scottish architect William Tunnell (himself a Collach from the Hebridean Isle of Coll), who sprinkles his magic extensively throughout the Hebrides. I caught up with him in his studio recently on the mainland and he explained the importance of An Laimhrig, “WT Architecture are passionate about working on projects that benefit communities and An Laimhrig certainly does that. It fits into the landscape too and on as island as spectacular as Eigg that’s important.”
“A sustainable living, community-minded, revolution with far-reaching lessons for us all”
An Laimhrig will not only have an extended shop and café – where the highlight are fresh local mussels hauled up from a creel on the pier – but it will be a burgeoning community and cultural hub too. Expect the first ever (Covid-delayed) Eigg Film Festival to make use of An Laimhrig too. No doubt you’ll be able to buy a beer made in the the crowd-funded island brewery opening soon in Galmisdale.
Eigg is already an inspiring place for artists, musician and dreamers. Take Johnny Lynch, aka The Pictish Trail. This celebrated musician set up home on Eigg and it’s now the base of his esoteric Lost Map Records, shedding light on other similarly open-minded artists. His micro-label is the host too of the semi-regular festival Howlin’ Fling! festival. Lynch is happy to see visitors on Eigg: “We love having people over. It brings us out of ourselves. We like showing the place off, and celebrating our lives here”.
Heading back to the pier Owain grabs me, wanting to tell me about more green developments on Eigg. “In the last few years we’ve planted over 17,000 new indigenous trees. The days of exporting plantation pines are over for Eigg as we rewild parts of the island and use the cut wood ourselves. I’m about to head off the island in search of oak seeds,” he beams. “We’re picking up the green energy too, focussing on developing new battery capacity and transformers that will help in the peak summer months. I’ve just taken delivery too of what I reckon are the first renewably powered fleet of e-bikes on any island in Europe.”
“We love having people over. It brings us out of ourselves. We like showing the place off”
Owain reflects an infectious passion about green living on Eigg, an isle taking solid steps rather than just engaging in tokenism. June 12, 2022, marks a quarter of a century since Scotland’s first island buy-out rejuvenated this remarkable slice of the Hebrides. Eigg will be celebrating with the grand opening of An Laimhrig. You’re more than welcome to join in the party – or even sign up as an island volunteer, live here too if you commit to Eigg – and experience a sustainable living, community-minded, revolution with far-reaching lessons for us all.
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