Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 13:15 UK

Saving world with Eigg and chips

By Iain MacDonald
BBC Scotland

Islanders are producing bio-diesel from oil used to fry chips

In the 1990s, Eigg was at the end of the world.

South of the Isle of Skye and 10 miles off the west coast of mainland Scotland, it was as isolated as a place could reasonably be.

And in some ways it was barely even a 20th Century settlement. Some residents had no running water. Power supplies were erratic at best.

However, today the small number of residents of Eigg are offering to save the rest of us.

In the past, the place was run in an isolationist manner by its laird, one time Olympic bobsleigh competitor Keith Schellenberg who, through an accident of marriage, was the laird living in the big house.

Angry confrontations

His thesis was that he wanted no interference from the state or any of its organs. Which included, to its own astonishment, the refuse department of Highland Council, more or less barred from setting foot on Eigg to collect the bins.

In its earlier, turbulent history, Eigg had seen Christian priests massacred.

It had been raided - and settled - by Vikings and its entire population was massacred during a clan war.

Then the new population of Eigg picked, through their clan chief, the wrong side in the 1745 Jacobite Rising, meaning some islanders were taken to London to die in prison and others transported to Jamaica as slaves.

Clearances emptied large parts of Eigg, and by the time Keith Schellenberg took over, there were few supposedly indigenous islanders left, the population supplemented by the laird bringing in new people to work for the estate.

But Eigg's real revolution only happened finally in the 1990s.

Escalating anger with Schellenberg's regime saw laird and residents at war.

Eigg was taken over by its residents in a community buyout

A vintage car belonging to the laird was mysteriously burnt and there was a series of angry confrontations.

Then the owner sold up.

In the surreal story of Eigg, the new owner still stood out.

Maruma, a German artist, tactfully described on the Eigg web site as "of doubtful credentials" - was not quite the same as the old boss, but with no evident means of support and no clear policy for the future, he was, if anything, worse than his predecessor in the eyes of his new tenants.

The islanders' buyout campaign, enthusiastically supported by politicians and opinion formers, both national and local, was not the first, or the first to succeed.

But it did succeed, with the help of a mystery female millionaire.

In 1997, the People's Republic of Eigg declared independence as fire artists and bobsleigh drivers disappeared off stage left, muttering imprecations.

Eigg became a bit of a beacon.

The crofters of Assynt had blazed this trail five years earlier, but with real political muscle behind the desire for self sufficiency on the part of many communities, Eigg was the first of several, and an early example to others. Not that everybody loved them.

I still distinctly remember being harangued by a Mr Angry Crofter in Arisaig about the "blankety blank hippies on Eigg" who were getting all this money for nothing.

One leader of another community group contemplating a similar buyout, came back from a trip to the island muttering: "If they can do it, anyone can do it."

The Press at the time diplomatically reported that he had returned impressed with what Eigg had done.

Dynamic community

What they have done in recent years is revitalise an all but defunct island community.

They've transformed their pier head teashop into a community gathering place, launched their own tourist industry, restored rundown houses and attracted new people to live in them and revitalised the local shop.

Because this is Eigg, you can book massage therapy too.

And also because this is Eigg, there's a new pier for the ferry boat and there's a community wind farm which powers all the island.

Today, in its own individual, laid back way, Eigg is a truly dynamic community.

Now it seems they're ready to save the rest of us.

Eigg is the only Scottish finalist in the nationwide Big Green Challenge, a competition aimed at encouraging communities to cut down on their carbon footprint.

To that end, solar panels and energy saving measures have been installed, there are green grants available and they're producing bio-diesel from old chip oil.

Islanders are looking at a car club for all of the Small Isles and Knoydart and already have a pool car scheme for islanders who go to the mainland and can pick up transport to go on their merry way from the ferry port.

A wood fuel business which would end the need for heating oil is also being investigated.

Tower blocks
Communities living in tower blocks could become "green islands"

On the internet, they're now offering to help the rest of us do the same.

Eigg has launched a site called Islands Going Green in which it suggests we can all be islanders and cut down our carbon footprint.

You don't actually have to be an island, says Maggie Fyffe of the island trust.

You can be a block of flats, an office, a street.

But if you can come together, you can take action just like Eigg has done.

They even have a five step plan which helps communities work out what they want to do and how to do it.

The island community's success at re-energising itself is still a light in the west, especially in these days when the buyout communities campaign seems to have run out of steam and money, and government is being urged to restart it all.

It'll be the end of the year before Eigg finds out if it's won the £1m prize in the Big Green Challenge.

But the islanders will press on with the greening of Eigg regardless.

And in an era when we will all have to contemplate doing the same some day, it seems Eigg is still leading the way. Whatever Mr Angry Crofter thinks.

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