“If you’re going to get sick, be sure it’s on a Wednesday,” my Isle of Eigg tour guide/driver Brian Greene said. “That’s the day the doctor arrives by ferry from Skye.”
Greene was filling in for Charlie Galli, this Scottish island’s usual taxi driver (and only source of public transportation), who was stuck on the mainland for a week awaiting space for his van on the ferry to return home. So Greene, who has lived on this 3-mile by 6-mile Inner Hebrides island since 1979, had volunteered his car to drive my husband, Carl, and me on the single-track road around this gorgeous green area, affectionately dubbed the “People’s Republic of Eigg” by its population of 109.
Following an unhappy laird—”estate owner”—leadership history (long story), since 1997, the island has been owned by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, a community ownership that raised $2.5 million from 10,000 individual contributions and one extremely generous anonymous donor. As Britain’s most eco-friendly island, it boasts the world’s first fully renewable-powered electric grid, generating its own electricity from a combination of wind, hydroelectric, and solar. It has more sheep than people—and roaming cows known to block the narrow road and testing drivers’ patience.
Backing up a bit, you may recall seeing Eigg (pronounced “egg”) profiled on “60 Minutes” in November 2017. It’s “some really obscure place that you’ve never heard of and are not likely to visit,” commented correspondent Steve Kroft in his introduction.
“I want to go there!” I exclaimed to Carl after we watched the entertaining episode about the island’s charming and resilient—yet quirky—residents.
I had no idea that just two years later, in November 2019, we would be here as curious, traipsing tourists—for about two hours.
Until COVID hit, some 11,000 visitors would come here each year via ferry—mostly as day-trippers, as we were, since accommodations are few. Tourists hike the white, sandy beaches; enjoy bird-watching, lobster-fishing, daytime boat cruises, kayaking, stargazing—just relaxing.
After taking the overnight Caledonian Sleeper train to Scotland from London, we had started our journey in Fort William at the Alexandra Hotel conveniently located next to the train station. We took another train 90 minutes up the scenic coast to Mallaig, a tiny fishing village, where we caught the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for the 80-minute sail to Eigg, 10 miles off the western coast.
I counted only 10 passengers onboard. There were also two vans and a few cars—which belonged to residents since “outsiders” cannot take cars to Eigg. It’s either walk, hire a bike, hitchhike—or book Galli’s taxi when he’s in town.
I had to laugh as I disembarked: Earlier, I had emailed Maggie Fyffe (the colorful Isle of Eigg Trust’s secretary, a 45-year resident who was featured with Galli on “60 Minutes”), sending a photo of Carl and me since she was meeting us at the pier. I spotted her right away, holding an umbrella and patiently waiting for us in the drizzle. With so few passengers, there had been no need to send the photo! She had invited us for lunch at the pier cafe after we toured the island for 45 minutes with Greene.
“We don’t have the influx of tourists here,” he commented as he drove us in his small older car. Despite the cloudy rain and wind, we loved seeing the island’s craggy, rustic beauty. We passed a few drenched, waving islanders bicycling on the narrow road.
Eigg boasts a small medical center, a few churches, a post office, one primary school with five students, one grocery store, a museum, a coffee shop, and “wee” craft shop, and a pub-tearoom-cafe by the pier. The gift shop there sells items made by the many creatively self-employed residents: hand-knitted sweaters (courtesy of the island’s sheep), jewelry, purses, candles, soap. There are also books about Eigg, T-shirts, and postcards. Mail is normally delivered three days a week. There is a smattering of guest houses, B&Bs, a hostel, self-catering venues, and yurts.
The ferry doesn’t arrive daily—and sometimes not for a week during fierce weather. Houses are few and far between, and long-timers become handy at fixing things and helping each other out. There’s no McDonald’s, Costco, or shopping center.
“We’re all from different cultures, backgrounds,” Fyffe said, as we sipped delicious soup for lunch in the pier’s cozy Galmisdale Bay Cafe and watched through the picture window as our return ferry slowly sailed in.
“Most people are on the same page. They recognize it’s a very beautiful, special place and want to keep it that way. The landscape is amazing. We’re a small, enthusiastic community. We wouldn’t have achieved what we have if it weren’t for that. There’s something about island communities—a bit different, special—people know warts and all. You sort out disagreements—you have to see them the next day. I don’t see many disadvantages. But it’s a pain […] if you miss the boat!”
When You Go
Inner Hebrides islands’ newspaper West Word: WestWord.org.uk
Caledonian Sleeper: Sleeper.scot
Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2021 Creators.com