The Joy of Eigg
TRANSITION in the Highlands today doesn’t tend to be the domain of born and bred locals.
There, that’s it out there. An uncomfortable, often unspoken, but crucial truth having a serious impact on Transition in this part of the world.
As Joe Rake said in his blog yesterday, land is key. A tiny minority controls vast tracts of it. Scotland’s common land was swindled from the population. Equality and social justice went out the window with families’ means to grow their own food and retain their self-respect. The notorious clearances saw mass emigration, those so brutally oppressed here often becoming the oppressors in the New World.
Campaigner Andy Wightman charts the sorry tale of who owns Scotland and how they got it in his latest book The Poor had no Lawyers. A perfect title for his very thorough account, which explores not only the history but also the implications of the recent debt-fuelled housing bubble.
So, what of diversity, equality, Transition Black Isle and the move towards sustainable communities in the Highlands more broadly?
As an indigenous Highlander even in the (fairly unlikely) event that you know what Transition is, if you don’t have a secure home or the means to pay your bills, the chances are you’ll have little energy or inclination to get involved in your local group. Blending today’s social issues with the painful baggage of Highland history and the common, if unfair, perception that Transitioners are just another group of do-gooding, lentil munching, well-heeled incomers telling folk how to live their lives, the picture begins to emerge.
There are almost 1,500 people on the waiting list for social housing in the Black Isle. In financial year 2010/2011 jut 44 homes were re-let. People born and bred in the area are being squeezed out.
A quick glance at the ads in the Ross-shire Journal is revealing. There’s just one page of jobs, most of them across the Kessock Bridge in Inverness. Salaries advertised are £8.05 an hour, £12,500 a year, the highest on the page is £14,000 plus unspecified ‘benefits’.
Turn to the property page. There’s a three bedroomed bungalow in a Black Isle village for £185,000. A nice looking farmhouse on a rural plot for offers over £225,000. Not much by way of land... plots are very hard to come by. See the problem? The chances of someone on a local wage being able to afford a house on the private market or a decent bit of land are pretty much zilch. So who’s buying? Those who benefited from the housing bubble, well-intentioned new arrivals like myself seeking rural tranquility, to live more sustainably, to do something positive in the community...
Meanwhile on expensive, high quality farmland in and around Black Isle villages, ‘executive homes’ continue to sprout, crammed in cheek by jowl. Who are the executives? ‘Exclusive’? Who’s excluded?
Seeking a tonic to the despondency that's starting to set in, I phone Maggie Fyffe on Eigg. Scotland’s first community owned island is blazing a different trail. Eigg shares aspirations and links with Transition groups, and is inspiring communities striving for sustainability throughout Scotland and the world.
Since the buyout in 1997 the population of the island has increased from 64 to more than 90. Young people are returning to the island to set up home and build energy efficient homes from materials including straw bales and local timber.
Some islanders have roots stretching back generations; many have arrived more recently from various parts of the British Isles and the world. Maggie’s been on Eigg most of her life. Do they all get on, live and work harmoniously together? A deep, infectious chuckle reverberates from the receiver.
‘We have our moments!” Maggie laughs. “But the bottom line is the people of Eigg care about what’s best for Eigg.”
The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, of which Maggie is secretary, has a housing policy which makes it possible for islanders to afford to stay. The Trust makes plots available on a shared equity basis, retaining a stake in the land. Trust-owned homes are rented out at affordable rates. Islanders make a living through a combination of activities, from tourism, helping maintain the electricity infrastructure, crofting, art, music, whatever, but it’s hard to earn a lot. So rents are kept low.
Eigg has cut its carbon footprint by more than 50% and produces its own electricity from a combination of wind, solar and hydro power. Through improving energy efficiency, fitting solar panels, cutting motorised journeys, and exploring options for an island-based wood fuel business islanders are reducing dependency on fossil fuels further.
They’re growing more fruit and vegetables, harvesting wild foods, eating fish from the seas round the island and venison from the neighbouring island of Rum. The islanders chart their progress and encourage others to follow in their green footsteps through their green island website which has links with communities from Orkney to Cheshire.
Eigg is currently fighting proposals by a multinational company to develop a salmon farm in the pristine waters off the island’s coast. The proposal flies in the face of all the work that’s been done in recent years, and would herald the return of the sound of diesel generators. The developers are on record as stating that they ‘don’t see the community as a serious obstacle.’
Out of the 72 islanders who voted on the proposal, 70 were against, and a petition against the fish farm has already been signed by more than 1800 people.
“Big votes happen relatively rarely but when it comes down to it, it’s amazing how united people are,” Maggie said. “The work towards becoming a greener island has brought training opportunities, education and work for people on the island as well as funding and international recognition. We’re building on foundations laid and will fight against anything that jeopardises the island. People are passionate about Eigg and that’s what unites us.”
Pride in what’s been achieved, a sense of shared purpose, music, fun and enjoying the ‘craic’ are strikingly common among the array of diverse and colourful characters that make up Eigg’s population. When I phone on Sunday evening, Maggie’s working on next year’s programme of concerts and ceilidhs. The party’s every bit as alive as the protest and that’s the joy of Eigg.