07 February 2012

Under Their Own Steam

Written by Published in Issue 31 - Work It Out Read 3417 times

The history of the tiny hebridean Isle of Eigg includes a clan feud, a massacre and a succession of eccentric lairds causing misery for the crofting tenant population. Then there was a revolution ...

In 1997, the Isle of Eigg was the focus of international attention, with headlines sweeping the globe to places as far away as New Zealand, the US, Bonn and Buenos Aires. The island community was fed up: it had endured centuries of exploitation by lairds under an archaic feudal system of landlordism.


A groundswell of interest to bring the island into cooperative ownership had emerged over a period of years, and finally a buy-out was within its grasp. The imagination of the Scottish public was captured and politicians were forced to sit up and take notice.


Narrowly avoiding being bought by yet another wealthy individual, the Isle of Eigg gained a useful reputation for being more than just an available island: it was now the home of a revolutionary movement. This drove down the market value and kept away buyers with the wrong intentions.


Eventually, the price came within reach of the community, with the help of donations from thousands of concerned citizens from all over the United Kingdom and a generous handout from an anonymous millionaire enthusiastic about the possibilities of a new type of ownership. Together they raised £1.6m, and the island became theirs. In the book Soil and Soul by Alistair McIntosh, charting the buy-out, a quote by local resident Marie Carr perfectly sums up that moment: ‘Yesterday I had a house. Today I have a home.’


The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust was created to manage the island under communitarian ownership. That means mutual accountability and democratically controlled safeguards exist in a system where a tenancy can be inherited, allowing for entrepreneurial freedom.


In Soil and Soul, McIntosh says that community land trusts give people the opportunity to live in a more authentic bond with the land, even if they are not actually using it to grow their food.


This helps create human-scale bio-regions, where a sense of identity and belonging can prevail. But it has not always been a smooth road and, as in any community, proper conflict-resolution mechanisms are needed. As McIntosh writes: ‘Learning forgiveness and reconciliation is part of what community is for. We need more space for this in today’s world if we want peace in tomorrow’s world.’


The sale of the island was the spark that ignited widespread Scottish land reform. That it took place just before the 1997 General Election, forcing Conservative MPs to acknowledge the issue, was impeccable timing. Had the election not been looming, the Conservatives in power would most likely have stayed silent in unspoken support of the system of landlordism imposed since the loss of Scottish autonomy in 1707. That Labour had a landslide victory further paved the way for transformation.


Inspired by the Isle of Eigg, other community trusts followed, and little by little change started to happen. The year 2000 saw a bill passed that not only abolished feudal tenure, but also created a public fund to assist further community buy-outs. Finally came the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, passed by the Scottish Parliament, firmly supported and promoted by a widely based movement and motivated by the Eigg buy-out.


But buying the island was just the beginning of Eigg’s astonishing journey. The question of ownership resolved, islanders could turn their attention to important tasks such as creating their own electricity grid. Too remote from the mainland to join the national supply, it made sense to look at renewable energy as the solution.


After years of work and investment from both public and private sources, the island now has its very own grid, fed by hydro, solar and wind power. The community uses a progressive model, and is the first example of a trio of energy-supply mechanisms being used together in a closed system. Until it was fully installed, it was unclear how well the combination of renewables would work, but any worries were unfounded.


The system has proved to be robust and reliable. A meter at the power station constantly measures how much energy is being used by islanders, a traffic-light system showing them how much power is available. Green means go ahead and use what you want, and red asks residents to conserve energy where they can. Prepaid electricity meters allow the system to run with minimal administration.


Eigg’s story of passion for the land can be summed up in the words of popular Scottish folk singer Dougie MacLean: ‘You can’t own the land, the land owns you’. Maggie Fyffe, Eigg’s Trust Director, is delighted at what has been achieved. ‘For such a small population, we can be proud of the projects we have completed to date.’


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