‘I think things are much more fragile than they seem. Poke at the right hole, and the whole thing could come falling down.’ – Ewan, Isle of Eigg.
I awake a little late in cheery Mallaig, a harbour town on the Scottish mainland. Disconcertingly, the sun is out already. Contrary to local wisdom, perhaps Scotland does have a summer?
It’s not long before I’m back in Mallaig harbour, boarding a small vessel with my bike that takes the twice-weekly journey to the isle of Eigg. This peculiar and remote island has a small community that was one of the first to buy back its own land. In the case of Eigg (pronounced egg), this was through a protracted struggle against an obnoxious and inconsiderate landowner Keith Schellenberg. The story of the island’s struggle has been shared with me in various pub conversations on the way, and I’ve found out more through Alastair McIntosh’s excellent book Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, a potent and inspiring book about community and the possibility of political change.
McIntosh grew up near Leurbost on the Isle of Lewis, that desolate little village I passed on the way to the Callanish stones. He tells of the sheer abundance of fish in nearby Loch Grimashadar. He and a local man, Finlay, would go out and catch cod, haddock and whiting, often ‘two at a time … We’d fill the bucket’. They lived in a community-focused economy where mutual assistance and reciprocal sharing were the norms, from fish or eggs to local assistance for building a house (indeed on Harris, Lewis and Skye I heard of similar economies still). But by the 1970s, this local abundance of fish vanished. ‘Very dead’, McIntosh puts it. Locals were at first baffled, until they realised that large trawlers, often manned by local fishermen, were breaking these local unwritten rules about not taking more than one needed, and sharing goods out.
These thoughts play on McIntosh’s mind for some decades, but it’s not unil 1990 that he’s invited by Tom Forsyth to get involved in the case of Eigg. ‘The soil is productive less by reason of its natural fertility than because the people tilling it are free.’ This line of Alexis De Tocqueville, 18th century advocate for democracy, shaped their project. Why not take back the land? And so, over the course of community campaigning, discussions and fundraising, together the islanders bought back their land. By 1997 Eigg was in community ownership.
I’ve come over on the ferry to find out more from the people who actually live here today.
On the ferry I talk to a couple from south Wales who are exploring the Hebrides for the first time. It’s a very hot and sunny day, and Mallaig Bay could be confused with the Canary Islands. ‘It’s more touristy than we thought,’ she says, but is enjoying the trips through the islands here.
I talk to a nun and a friend with her out to Eigg and back to watch the seals, and spend some time talking to Jan, another one out to immerse herself in the life of the seas. She points out jellyfish in the ocean and tells me of the harbour porpoises, bottle-nose dolphins, basking sharks (‘not many in the last couple of years’), minke whales and even the odd tortoise she’s seen in these calm seas between the mainland and Eigg. She’s English and lives on the mainland, but makes these trips regularly to visit the smaller isles of the Hebrides, like Rum and Muck nearby. She points me to the harbour visitors centre at Tobermory and instructs me to tell them she sent me. We’ll see what happens!
Eigg is a small island that from a distance looks very flat, like a slightly squashed chocolate biscuit pressed over the sea. Its one distinctive feature is the great Sgurr, a snarled point of a mountain with fine views over the surrounding mainland and smaller isles. We land, almost all of us tourists, and are greeted with a gaggle of locals, some to collect fish brought over from Mallaig, a local postman, relatives, and others just peering. This ferry comes only twice a week and so remains quite an event. As we unload, I ask one lady with her daughter and grand-daughters about the island.
Hilda is the headmistress of the school on Eigg, and the school on Rum. There’s about six children in each, covering the entire range of primary school years, P1 to P7. Afterwards the children leave the island to go to high school in Mallaig, staying in the hostel and coming home at weekends. She’s been here around eight or nine years.
‘How did you hear about Eigg?’
‘I was looking for a job in the paper, and I saw the headmistress job, I applied, and I got it! And I love it here.’ She gives me some tips about local museums and invites me back to her house for coffee later, but sadly I have too little time to take up the offer.
As they head away, I wander up the little pier to a solitary fishermen gazing into the azure waters beneath him. His name is Ewan, and he’s neither a man of Eigg nor a fisherman, but the owner of an architectural firm in Glasgow. We end up talking for some time.
Conversation begins about the land here. Ewan’s been travelling to Eigg on family holidays from a young age. ‘The discussions I heard, and had, when I was 16 coming here, they were energising. People were taking things into their own hands. … When I came here as a kid, the place, the harbour, it looked run down. Things are improving. They’ve gone from having about 60 people on the island, to around 100. It’s over a 50% increase.’
I wonder if the movement to rediscover the Gaelic tongue and reintroduce it in schools coagulates with the growing movement for communities in the Highlands to acquire their own land. Have these smaller victories energised the possibility for considering political independence?
Ewan agrees with the opinion of Kieran, the friendly and fiery young man I met on Skye, that I share with him. There’s so much force and momentum behind devolution that it has becoming irreversible. ‘There could be no point now where they said: that’s it, you’re going to come under us again.’ Ewan agrees that even a small No victory wouldn’t derail the force towards a much wider devolution of powers. ‘It seems inevitable. And maybe the other regions, like Wales, they’ll follow.’
Whilst Ewan is a little uncertain about independence still, he feels that it has started so many political discussions where once these were few. He talks to me passionately about land ownership in Scotland. After discussing the situation in the Highlands (I tell him that he wouldn’t be allowed to fish for sea trout here, or at best, would have to pay a huge fee), he tells me it’s something that seems really wrong. He doesn’t get how the land can belong to a person, particularly someone who is never around to use it. It should go to those that farm it.
Discussing the corruption and greed of the aristocracy leads back to the domination of London. Part of the case for independence is the centralisation of UK power and interests to an elite in London, over the egalitarianism Ewan mentioned. It’s disadvantaged all the regions of the UK, though Scotland is currently feeling it and discussing it politically at the moment.
‘The South east is probably the only region that produces more wealth than it consumes, compared to the other parts of England.’
‘Yeah but that’s only because of the decisions of the last 40 years, that have moved the economy to property speculation and financial capitalism and allowed the industries and occupations of the other regions to collapse.’
‘Aye. What’s it like in London?’
‘Where I’m from, and worked, the south and the east, things like Canary Wharf, or the West End, or the Olympics, haven’t benefitted people living here. There’s been a lot of opposition. Like with a lot of the English towns, there’s a big problem with unemployment and bad housing. Rents are huge and growing. It’s becoming like Paris, where the poor are being moved furthest out.’
‘Well, independence would be a big gesture. It’d force the rest of the UK to take a deep breath. There’s been no real discussion about nationality. What is Britain? This isn’t Britain, but that over there is [gesturing to Scottish mainland]. Yet they’re confused. What about Northern Ireland?’
‘What about Shetland, or Orkney? They’re crown dependencies, like the Channel Islands, not even part of the UK.’
‘England doesn’t have a proper grasp of its own nationality. Something needs to be done, not like UKIP, to put that nationality back on the agenda, but avoiding the xenophobia and immigrant bashing. Getting back to that movement after the war for collective rights.’
Ewan’s opinions chime right with my own. He asks me about the EU referendum, and I concede pessimistically that I think England at least would vote to leave, not realising the immense damage it would do to farming and the cost of goods. It seems like another good reason for Scottish independence.
‘One thing that’s really disturbed people is the Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris stuff. That people could be given knighthoods and protected by the establishment for decades. It’s shocking. Giving people that much power is dangerous. The whole thing should be swept away, swept clean.’
‘You mean the House of Lords, and knighthoods?’
‘I agree. The fact that a government home office minister seems to have personally destroyed most of the files that had evidence of politicians abusing children is shocking. It’s like in London with the metropolitan police. It’s been found out that they’ve been taking bribes, giving information to the papers, killing people in custody, covering up racism and all sorts. They can’t be trusted, just like politicians, after the expenses, and now this, can’t be trusted.’
‘People used to turn to Labour, but even that’s gone. They all go to the same schools, have the same views.’
‘If a Labour MP were to talk now about the working class, or building towards a more equal and freer socialist society, there’d be outrage! But in the 1960s it was the norm.’
Ewan keeps coming back to a concept of collective rights, and citizens acting collectively. I note it because in my own writings over the last year I’ve been vaguely hinting towards its political importance, without really being sure what it meant. Yeah, I’ve worked in several community charities, went to youth clubs when I was younger and have volunteered my time in community projects more recently, but any kind of real political potential from this seemed unlikely. Ewan’s conversation has me dotting the dots – and noticing the missing parts – of a picture of communal action. But like many, Ewan discussing collective rights with a degree of mourning.
‘I think it’s sad, that in the last thirty years, something has been lost. There was a move, after the war, towards egalitarianism, towards collective rights. Somewhere that changed.’
The opinion resonates with Alistair McIntosh. The possibility of making money through trawler fishing changed life in Lewis. But campaigns can react against this and, rather than just reassert the case for the old, present a new vision. Eigg was ruined by centuries of hereditary landowners. But hope comes with the taste of a recent bitter memory.
We discuss whether the real shift happened with Tony Blair and New Labour. ‘There was so much hope in 1997, people honestly thought things were, as the song goes, going to improve.’ I tell him about the British Social Attitudes Survey, that hostility to those receiving benefits, and median inequality, both began to substantially increase after 1997. These are things Thatcherism is blamed for, but the perversity is that it happened more under New Labour.
‘With Thatcher, people seemed to take it personally. But aye, with Tony Blair, he had something for everyone.’ The Iraq War felt like a turning point. ‘I was at the march, I’m sure you know which one I mean… I couldn’t believe how the media reported it afterwards. It made me realise just how constructed the media narrative is. They said 100,000 in London. There was two million…’
As a pioneer of strategic optimism, Ewan’s conversation is a little lacking. But as a wise and intelligent spark who has my mind, and hopefully some readers’ minds, racing about problems and possibilities, such serendipitous conversations with the person nearest you are illuminating. As I leave, I double-check one observation that’ been bugging me. Ewan hasn’t caught a single fish.
‘So really you’re not out here to catch fish at all, that’s not the point?’
‘Oh no. And there’s an interesting political analogy in there somewhere…’
By the harbour is a large building housing a café, giftshop and some other miscellanies. I head into the giftshop and use the purchase of a postcard as an excuse to find out more about land ownership. I get talking to Peggy, who has lived here for 55 years. Despite her experience, she laughs awkwardly and says she’s not qualified to explain, but with gentle prompting tells me of the problems on the island before under Schellenberg and the improvements since then.
Asking about Gaelic steers the conversation onto more revealing territory. She gestures to a friendly man of similar age who wanders over. ‘He’s the only one I can speak to in Gaelic.’ ‘Is that because the younger people don’t speak it?’ ‘it’s not that, they’ve all moved away.’ ‘Aye Peg’s the only other older one left.’ Many of the earlier islanders (albeit not many) have died and moved away. Ian has also moved, taking his daughter to the mainland to go to secondary school whilst having a supportive family life. He still has a croft and a house here, but he’s looking to sell it. That’ll leave Peggy, and another man they mention called Duncan who also rarely visits the place, to converse in Gaelic.
Ian describes something I’d not come across at the Gaelic college. ‘We were brought up with Gaelic. I never heard English until I first went to school, I was seven! We think in Gaelic, it was our first tongue. Now, those that speak Gaelic do it in translation, they translate from English to Gaelic in their heads. For us it was our first language.’
I pop into the café and treat myself to a tub of delicious local ice cream from the Eigg yurt. It’s just one of a handful of eco businesses on the island, one which now generates all of its own electricity. The owner isn’t local either, though to be local on Eigg is very difficult given its small population. He tells me that he’s been here for about twenty years, after leaving ‘a very good job’ in Edinburgh. Any regrets? ‘Not at all, I love it here.’ Do they run out of things in winter? ‘We freeze a lot, but generally, no.’
Outside three older men wash down some home-made and ‘very delicious’ burgers with pints of beer. Conversation with a group of women talks to inconsiderate lorry-driving on single track roads, and I share my recent experiences. ‘Always keep your space’, smiles one guy, reassuring me with the pride that should come with cycling. ‘They’ve only got to wait a minute to pass, and for god’s sake, they shouldn’t be in a hurry anyway.’ He had a bad motorbike accident after being forced into a verge. Their easy-going friendliness and method of travel is another reminder of why travelling the Hebrides by bike and boat would be best of all, to visit those much-praised, rarely-seen islands like Rum, Coll, Muck, Tiree, Colonsay, Barra and beyond.
Whilst waiting for the returning ferry, I spot the island’s only postman, his van being chased by a trusty collie dog earlier. He’s been the postman here for twenty six years. How has life changed? ‘Oh, well people are ordering a lot more parcels now. From the internet, you know. It was never like that when I started. They gave me a bike to do the island! You couldn’t do that now!’ I prompt him about Eigg. ‘Yes, I was part of the committee. Things have definitely improved since then. When it was in private hands, things were in a bad way. It’s better now.’
I get back to Mallaig around three. The sun is almost scorching, and I break out the shorts and sun cream, perhaps the third occasion on this trip!
It’s a long ride ahead. My destination is Fort William, much further inland. But in weather like this I could cycle up mountains until the wee small hours. The road to Fort William is long but in the sunlight passes quickly, with beautiful beaches along the way by Arisaig and Morar, their glorious white sands and rocking sailboats spangling in the distance. I pass pretty Loch nan Uamh, the place where Bonny Prince Charlie fled Scotland for France, some six months after the defeat at Culloden, and just over a year after raising his rebellious standard at nearby Glenfinnan. After fleeing through the Hebrides through various loyal safe-houses, at times dressed as a maid, Charles Edward Stuart’s exit is as thwarted and ignominious as his entrance. But the sorry legacy for the Highlands can be seen everywhere.
As I pedal on, I spot a young cyclist struggling with his chain. As always, I offer to help. It’s a vaguely fixable problem, and as a result of the confused discussion we end up cycling together for quite some time. Ben is from Switzerland and is a Master’s student in geology. His road is somewhere up here, but where exactly, he’s not sure, so we cycle together for what ends up being around forty five miles. The route is an absolute pleasure, zipping up and down small hills with mountain peaks playing all about us.
It’s so much more enjoyable sharing the journey with another cyclist too. I discovered this with Dan and Rick on Skye: miles passed in minutes as we laughed and talked together, sharing the discovery.
Ben’s an intriguing fellow, and the hours pass over an exchange of life stories, travel escapades, cheery observations and lively debate. He tells me about Switzerland, where national military service is compulsory for young men (women can volunteer…). One can pay a large sum to avoid it, or do ‘civil service’ helping out the elderly and the vulnerable, a kind of social service … but many relish it.
Training one’s citizens into an army is a classic early modern strategy for a country to defend itself against foreign invasion: citizens are less likely to flee when they’re defending their own homelands, and for small countries, acquiring soldiers voluntarily is difficult enough. It’s curiously related to the self-sufficiency of their democratic institutions, and makes Switzerland that bit like the United States. Gun ownership is huge. Even after young men leave national service, they take their guns with them and are expected to regularly attend firing ranges in their local towns to keep up their skills. After a number of shootings and slayings, the government has wisely decided to ban people from buying or keeping bullets at home, but Ben tells me it’s a common sight for trains at the weekend to be full of drunken soldiers in uniform, casually brandishing guns.
I try to explain what makes the UK different. It’s not so much about national service, but what strikes me as a popular distaste for outward displays of aggression and violence. The police here do not carry guns. How unusual? Yes, for Europeans and Americans, it is. And how often does one see a soldier out in a town in their combat fatigues? I have never seen one. Though fear of violent reprisals may play a part, a legacy of IRA attacks against locations associated with troops, I argue to Ben that there’s a deeper dislike of war and, to an extent, soldiers. The popularity of a charity like Home for Heroes is underscored by a widespread belief that the Ministry of Defence has always neglected ex-servicemen, not through a feeling that war is glorious or good.
Switzerland is also curious for the frequency of its referenda. The Swiss truly have something approaching a democracy. To hold a national referendum, all that’s required is for citizens to get together 100 000 signatures on a petition, and it will be put to the public. They could vote to have Monday mornings off if they wanted…
Citizens are often called to vote on matters important and trivial. Poor turnout is a problem, but there’s a promising start there. A developed country calls on its citizens to vote whether to retain this national service, or to extend restrictions on foreign migrants’ access to work, or to grant a universal basic income to every citizen. Some problems arise as a result: what might better represent the welfare of future citizens can get lost in the bad prioritising of the present. Switzerland has made it very difficult, democratically, for foreigners to work there. It spells catastrophe, creating a desert of cleaners and hospital consultants. Yet it got the popular vote.
The universal basic income is a more curious case, as some forward-thinking theorists on the left in this country have started arguing for it as a model. Ben voted against it, and explains the reasons why the Swiss largely voted to reject it.
‘What would the incentives be to work? If I studied and worked for many years, and then I got the same money as this guy who never did anything, why would I bother? There would be no reason to.’
Attitudes about work as a necessary evil seem to resound. Another issue was how expensive it would make Swiss products overseas. Though some argued it would save money over means-tesed benefits, in a country like the UK where relatively little is spent on benefits beyond the state pension, and what is certainly isn’t means-tested, the benefits are less clear. Reclaiming welfare as a social right might be more promising. Whilst there may be arguments around it, I think there’s something telling that a fairly informed democracy rejected it. If such a policy were to be implemented in the UK, then through the vote may not be the best way. The Swiss case is a challenging model.
Conversation flows easy with Ben. He abandons his plan to get to Strontian and we pass Glenfinnan and its Jacobite monument, and eventually reach Fort William.
It’s odd returning to a proper town. I see traffic lights, petrol stations and roundabouts, and even hear an aircraft nearby. All this is deeply disorientating! I even feel the pressure to lock up my bike whilst we go into the pub, something I’ve not done for at least a week.
We stop for a couple of beers in The Crofters and head back to the woods near the Glen Nevis visitors centre, where Ben cooks a meal of couscous and veg on his stove. The warm and healthy grub is quite delicious, and having a bright and fascinating companion turns an enjoyable enough evening into a pleasure. Together we put up our tents, wish each other well, and fall asleep, our evening’s destinations the next day completely and wonderfully unknown.