The Hebridean island of Eigg epitomises clean, green modern living, as Robin McKelvie finds out…
The idea of having your own island is a Robinson Crusoe dream of many people. Well there is somewhere in Scotland I’ve been to recently whose inhabitants already own their island and it’s a deeply special escape at that, awash with epic scenery, bountiful wildlife and a beguiling proud sense of place. Welcome to Eigg.
Like many Hebridean islands Eigg has endured a tumultuous history and suffered badly during the Clearances. Its travails continued in the twentieth century when a succession of landlords clashed with the island residents. This came to a head in 1997 when the islanders – in conjunction with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Wildlife Trust – snapped up the chance to buy out their own island.
Last year Eigg celebrated entering its third decade as a community owned oasis and so much progress has been made in that time. And I’m not just talking about the symbolic value of saying you own your own island. Impressively Eigg is now nigh 100% electricity self sufficient, through an innovative community owned combination of hydro, solar and wind power. A new ferry port, funded largely by the European Union, has brought better CalMac ferry services and helped make life on the island easier.
As life on Eigg has become more manageable – there is decent broadband now, a host of local businesses and a community hub by the pier – newcomers have been attracted in. This includes the sort of young couples and families that are essential for securing the island’s future. I was very reassured to see a few of them on the ferry over from Mallaig.
I was here with young ones too, partly to show my two daughters a totally different way of living than the one we are used to. The first things that greeted us off the ferry were a plaque hailing the buy out and another hailing a ‘Big Green Footsteps’ award. On checking into our community owned wooden pods we were politely informed we’d have to take all the rubbish we couldn’t recycle back on the ferry with us. My eldest Tara was impressed as she is studying greener living at school.
Our wee wooden pod (www.eiggcampingpods.com) was seriously cosy and great value at only £40 a night. It was basic, but had electricity and a heater that works when there is enough water and wind. Basically whenever you need it, it works! We loved the firepit outside our pod and spent a lovely first night roasting marshmallows after we’d enjoyed a sunset scanning for otters in the bay just below.
A wee road along the fringes of that bay led us the next morning around to a sprinkling of white sand beaches. Here we paddled, foraged for clams and made dams. The kids loved having the freedom to roam around and we appreciated being able to relax not worrying about passing cars and the kids’ safety.
We could have stayed on the sands all day, but we were embarking after a picnic – culled from the well-stocked wee shop by the pier – on an adventure in search of dinosaurs. Seriously. Ok, dinosaur fossils, but that was enough to get my girls and daddy excited.
Our guide was Craig Lovatt of Eigg Explorers (Tel 01687-315088). Handily he picked us up and whisked us over to Laig Bay. Soon we were armed with wee magnifying glasses and were scanning the rocks for fossils. We found a fish tail and then bone fragments from all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures that walked, swum and flew over these sands million of years ago. The girls’ little minds boggled.
The adventure wasn’t over as Craig steered us further north in search of the famous Singing Sands. They are so named as they are meant to sing, but it’s more of a squeak, best heard when the weather is dry. The landscape is breathtaking as you can gaze out over to the mighty mountains of Rum. The weather was closing in so we beat a retreat to the Rest and Be Thankful.
This turned out not so much to be a café, but more a kitchen in a lovely lady’s house. Here we tucked into ultra fresh homebaking and a warm brew before Craig swept us back over the hills to our base by the ferry pier in Galmisdale. The wee shop and the craft store at the community hub were open so we nipped in to see the crafts fashioned by island artists and to snare a bottle of ale produced by the island’s Laig Bay brewery.
We enjoyed dinner both nights at the Galmisdale Bay, the café restaurant at the community hub. Here we savoured a view of the waters across to Ardnamurchan (the most westerly point of the UK mainland) and steamed mussels from just across the sea in Arisaig. Gloriously they hang the mussels in a net off the pier to keep them fresh, which seemed to make them taste all the better!
On our second day we hired bikes from Eigg Adventures – handily you can book these in advance through CalMac for only £23 including return ferry travel – from the lovely couple who run it, Laraine and Owain. We headed back down the island’s only real road to Laig Bay for a picnic in the dunes. This really is a stunner of a beach and we lost a good few hours enjoying the space and the soft sands with the thundering Atlantic in the background.
On the way back to base we stopped at the old shop that now serves as a free museum, offering an insight into Eigg’s rich history. My kids loved ‘working’ behind the counter and delivering telegrams after they asked what these strange communications were. I learned how impressed seminal geologist Hugh Miller was when he visited in 1846. He was the first to discover the plesiosaurus beds at Laig Bay,
On our last morning we eked along the cliffs to a very sobering spot. The Massacre Cave, as it sounds, is shrouded in tragedy. It was here in the sixteenth century that hundreds of the local Clan Ranald were murdered in cold blood by Macleods from the neighbouring larger island of Skye. They had been hiding in this massive cave, which only has a tiny wee entrance. My girls took a bit of convincing that they actually wanted to crawl through the darkness into what daddy promised would be a massive space inside. It’s an eerily fascinating spot where bones are still discovered to this day, necessitating a visit from the mainland police.
From a low point to a literal high point now with An Sgurr. The island’s highest point may only vault 393m, but it is one of the imposing looking hills in Scotland. This volcanic plug struts her rock stuff up to a towering summit with a sheer drop facing you as you approach her base. It does send shivers through nervous walkers, but it is actually quite straightforward if you have all the usual gear and someone in the group with a map compass and the ability to use them.
Sadly on this visit we didn’t have time to hike to the top and we were all too soon aboard CalMac’s MV Lochnevis bound for the world of traffic lights and hustle and bustle. I asked my kids what they thought of Eigg and they both screamed ‘I love it!’, so I furnished them with the badges that bore those words I’d sneaked off to buy in the island shop. They, like me, do love Eigg and anyone who fancies visiting a naturally stunning island that epitomises clean, green modern living will do too. Enjoy!
For further information see www.visitscotland.com
Hotel of the Fortnight
Harvest Moon Holidays – As the author of Cool Camping Scotland I’ve watched intrigued at the growing trend for ‘glamping’ over more traditional tents. Some of these new sites are a bit smoke and mirrors, but Harvest Moon Holidays in East Lothian is the real deal. The site is spectacular, set just back behind the vaulting dunes from a sweeping beach. I’ve stayed a couple of times in their African-style safari tents, which offer a taste of camping along with cooking facilities and a proper toilet. Their more recently built ‘treehouses’ (more wood cabin than treehouse) are a step up and my kids loved them. www.harvestmoonholidays.com.
If you love thin crust, topping heavy New York-style pizzas then I’ve found the perfect place in Edinburgh for you. I’d heard great things about Civerinos Slice in the Old Town so headed along. I wasn’t disappointed with their glorious pizzas handily available by the slice. My test of a great pizzeria is one that can make a deceptively simple Margherita – the original pizza invented in Naples – taste good enough to grace a Neapolitan table. And it is here. If you’re really hungry you can order a whole pizza, but a slice of Margherita and a slice of one of their more creative toppings should be more than enough for most appetites in this bright, modern space. www.civerinosslice.com