It’s morning and gusts of wind beat against our off-grid, timber bothy. We can hear the wind bellowing down the chimney stack, causing puffs of smoke to burst out of the wood burner as we fire it up. It’s been raining on and off for days. I found a telescope and from our bothy I can see across the channel and watch the waves crashing against the rocky shoreline of the Isle of Rùm. The mountains of Rùm come in and out of view, shrouded by deep, moody rain clouds. Ferry services off the island are canceled again, but that’s alright.
We’re on a two-week voyage of which we’re spending five days on the Isle of Eigg. Eigg is one of the Small Isles in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, famous for its community ownership and renewable energy scheme. It’s five miles long and 3 miles wide with a population just short of 50. This is a peaceful, quiet get-away for us, completely offline, with no schedules or distractions.
Morning activities include lighting a fire, making tea, reading and for me, some experimentation with Win Hoff breathing routines – which apparently resets my central nervous system, whatever that means. For breakfast, we have porridge with grated apple, honey and yoghurt, cooked on the burner, with a pot of coffee. It’s a good start to the day.
The wood burner crackles. I’m catching up with National Geographics and losing myself in cryptic crosswords. We try to take a walk each day, between the rainfall. This evening, we’ve been invited to a board game night at the Island’s only cafe, which is also a post office, bar and shop.
The weather was kind to us on the day we arrived and we took that opportunity to hike along the ridge of Cleadale cliffs, past a rocky feature known as the “finger of God”, and then back down onto the Singing Sands beach as the sun was starting to set. From this side of the Island, there’s a beautiful view of the mountains on Rùm, dusted with snow.
Back in the bothy, there’s a wee library of books to browse, mostly covering Island life, crofting culture and highland history. It was a joy to pick-up (again) Alistair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul, a beautiful dive into human ecology, theology and land reform history. McIntosh was involved in the landmark campaign that led, in 1997, to the Isle of Eigg gaining independence from landlordism, and coming under community control. It’s a fascinating account. Today, he says over a third of a million acres of Scotland – 2% of the land mass – is in community ownership via some 200 community groups.
With such a small population, an islander writing about Eigg describes the delicate balance of inhabitants needed to maintain a healthy community and economy. For example, the primary school currently has five children attending; keeping this open is important for attracting or retaining young families.
In what might have been one of the gloomiest weeks to take a holiday, with only a few other brave holidaymakers on the island, we were delighted to hear that on Valentines Day, the restaurant would be open for the evening. A short walk from our bothy, we enjoyed a delicious three-course meal from Sue, who also runs a guest house there. Afterwards, we were out into the damp pitch dark, head torches on, we walked back to Sweeney’s bothy. It’s so quiet and home feels so distant.
With sustainability often on my mind, I was curious about what is happening in the waters around the Small Isles. In Soil and Soul, Alistair McIntosh, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis, describes the small islander fishing that took place during his childhood. In the 1970s, this underwent an abrupt change when boats started coming into the bay at night and trawling the seabed, breaking all the taboos. As he realised what was occurring, it was a feeling of gentle horror. Shifts in European fishing policy, combined with new technologies and investment into fishing fleets caused devastation to fish stocks and brought disruption to local, small-scale fishing businesses and the economy.
Today, with wild fish stocks suffering, the old fishing industry has shrunk, but a new industry of farmed fish has expanded into Scottish waters. It’s controversial. Companies like Mowi and Scottish Sea Farms, producing farmed salmon, are major employers in the region. It’s a significant economic activity for Scotland, worth over £2 billion, and attracting significant European and government funding with grand ambitions to expand.
We hear in passing, some of the controversy and divided opinion this industry creates. Some of the islands are rejecting the presence of these companies, some support it, others are torn. On one hand, there’s jobs and associated funding that supports valuable community facilities. On the other, there’s environmental degradation, pollution and further decimation of wild fish stocks beyond Scotland. In the last year, the impacts of this industry have been highlighted by two campaign groups, the Changing Markets Foundation and Feedback, focusing on the imported fish meal and oil for farmed salmon.
Drawing on my recent exploration of regenerative agriculture, I wonder what a regenerative fishing industry might look like? One that supports a diversity of business, good jobs and working at a level that enables local fish stocks to return and multiply. It feels movement is currently in the wrong direction.
I’ve digressed somewhat from Eigg time. It seems I can’t help myself thinking about sustainability! Yet it’s interesting how we balance environmental stewardship, food provision, jobs, community wellbeing and so on. As we leave, we speak to our bothy host, Lucy, who tells us about their intentions this year to explore how a more resilient local food system can be established on the island, building on the progress and actions that many of the Islanders already take part in.
Eigg has so much going for it. As we say our goodbyes, Lucy tells us about an upcoming film festival she’s organising. There’s also a music festival and even a record label on the Island. All the more reason to return.