It is one of the most tranquil and beautiful members of the so-called Small Isles of the Inner Hebrides that for many years had been dogged with problems with absentee landlords, including lack of home and business security, unemployment and poor housing.
Now the Isle of Eigg is to celebrate 25 years of self-ownership which has seen the community put the problems behind them, with a population almost doubling to 110 while gaining a reputation as a world pioneer in sustainable living.
The only reliance the 12 square mile island, ringed with cliffs and topped by a formidable peak, has with the mainland is the weekly deliveries of the supplies they cannot produce themselves.
Frustrated with a series of ‘neglectful’ landlords, the residents banded together and bought the land, including its houses and farms, from its private owner in 1997 for £1.5m.
With newfound control over future development, the newly-established Eigg Heritage Trust set about putting right the infrastructural weaknesses that had dogged the community for decades.
Most residents were scraping by with expensive, noisy generators. The diesel was toxic, and most islanders were limited to a few hours of energy consumption a day.
Now it has become the first place in the world to provide electricity 24/7 from renewable wind, sun and hydro power.
Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, the charity that owns the island says the system has been so successful, it is used as a model worldwide with communities from Africa and the Americas learning from how Eigg did it.
Recent additions to the system will ensure increasing capacity to support new housing and business development.
While the population has almost doubled, the trust believe what is more important is that many are below the age of 40 and have young children Many are supported by jobs enabled by the Trust who own the island – 22 at the last count.
Now the Trust, the the charity that owns the island is to hold a ceilidh party next Saturday to celebrate their successes and the 25th anniversary of asserting its independence.
The Trust said that at the time of the buyout residents could only have dreamt of what they might do and “perhaps could never have anticipated all that they have achieved”.
Maggie Fyffe, secretary to the Trust said: “In the 1990s the whole community suffered from the poor management and bad decisions of several private landlords. People were being threatened with eviction, there was no investment in any of the island buildings or infrastructure and we were all very worried about what might eventually happen.
“The news that we eventually raised, through private donation, the £1.5m to buy the island was absolutely fantastic.
“Since then, it has been a huge amount of hard work and effort to do all that we have done – but it’s wonderful to see our children returning to the island to live and work and the global interest in all that our community has achieved.”
The island south of Skye has a dark past.
More than 400 years ago, every resident of Eigg, barring one elderly woman, was killed during a clan feud.
About 400 islanders, who were members of the Macdonald clan, were murdered by a raiding party of Macleods from Skye.
The islanders had been hiding in a cave for three days when they were discovered.
Macleods blocked the narrow entrance to their hideout with heather and other vegetation before setting the material alight.
Legend has it that in 617AD, Christian pilgrim St Donnan was beheaded and his fellow monks murdered.
Folklore purports that the killings were carried out by large female warriors who lived on the Sgurr, a volcanic outcrop that dominates the skyline on Eigg.
The island which was sold by island laird, the British businessman and Winter Olympian Keith Schellenberg to millionaire German artist Marlin Eckhard, also known as Maruma for £1.6m in 1995, had changed hands nine times since 1828.
But issues such as lack of home and business security, unemployment and poor housing and infrastructure influenced the decision to launch a buyout.
Eigg inhabitants were celebrating their success in breaking the grip of private landlords as they took control on June 12, 1997.
The Trust which comprised all the residents, the Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which has reserves on the island, found the money for the 7400-acre island, virtually all raised through a public appeal launched eight months previously with a target of £800,000.
An initial offer of £1.2m was refused by Maruma and a month later the National Lottery trustees turned down the islanders’ request for financial help.
The Trust said that the £2m that had been sought by Maruma was a “ludicrous figure” as was the price paid but praised the public for making it possible.
The Stuttgart-based Maruma was under a legal requirement to sell because of a loan for £300,000 raised in Hong Kong in 1995 against the island, from clothing exporter Hanz Rainer Ehrhardt.
Mr Ehrhardt was granted a decree at Fort William Sheriff Court in March, 1997 in respect of the default of Eigg Islands Ltd, Maruma’s company, in repaying the loan.
Mr Erhardt effectively took over the sale of the island and it was with his lawyers that the trust finalised the deal in Edinburgh.
The trust’s bid was understood to have been accepted ahead of one other, from Graham Mellstrom, the 67-year-old Surrey businessman/farmer, who was chairman of the bank National Guardian Mortgage which was taken into administration in March 1992 owing 10,000 depositors more than £10m.
The struggle had echoes of a similar battle conducted by the people of Assynt in Sutherland in 1993.
Then, the Assynt Crofters Trust set the trend for future buy-outs when it bought the 21,000-acre North Assynt estate for £300,000.
In Scotland, if communities can raise the funds to meet the market price, they have first option to buy their land when it comes up for sale. In the crofting counties this is a right which can be exercised at any time, which essentially means a forced sale.
To attract public sector support, there must be a community body registered to manage the process.
But it is not all plain sailing.
In November, 2020, a community attempt to buy land surrounding Scotland’s highest village, Wanlockhead, suffered a serious setback after its £1.5m funding bid was rejected.
The Scottish Land Fund told the buyout campaigners earlier it had turned down their application for public funding, saying it was worried about the levels of local support and insufficient community consultation.
Wanlockhead Community Trust wants to buy 1,563 hectares (3,863 acres) of grazing, moors and brownfield land surrounding the village in Dumfriesshire from the property empire owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the UK’s wealthiest hereditary landowners. In August, 2020 an independent valuation set a price of nearly £1.5m.
The decision was a setback for land reformers in southern Scotland, who hoped to see a hat-trick of buyouts from Buccleuch after the nearby communities of Newcastleton and Langholm moor purchased land holdings from him earlier this year.
On Eigg, within a year of buying the island, the community had built a new shop and café to cater for residents and the increasing number of visitors.
The Trust say that such has been their success, they have been redeveloped with An Laimhrig (The Safe Harbour) now about to reopen after a £3m regeneration scheme.
They say the new space will provide a bigger café and shop, a craft shop, space for a cycle and kayak hire business, new visitor facilities including Taigh Nighe, office space for the Trust and hot desks and space for island businesses to grow.
Since 1997 islanders worked towards having most of the electricity they use generated by renewable energy projects, including micro hydro, solar and wind schemes.
Plans are also afoot for new projects to address the causes of and to reduce fuel poverty for residents and to improve insulationand energy efficiency on the island, as part of the move to New Zero.
Stuart Fergusson, chairman of the Isle of Eigg Resident Association and owner of the Galmisdale Bay Café said: “Like all rural communities, Eigg has suffered from Covid with falls in visitor numbers and the rising cost of living. However, because our community, 25 years ago, had the vision and bravery to challenge the status quo, raise £1.5m, buy the island and go on to deliver all these amazing projects – we now have the power in our hands to decide what we want to do as a community to meet these challenges.
“If we fail, it’s our responsibility. But if we succeed in increasing the population, supporting local businesses to grow and thrive, protecting our natural and cultural heritage and attracting more visitors – then it’s our success and one we have worked hard to achieve.”