People too precious to be sold as baubles

Islanders of Eigg launch appeal for funds to buy their heritage and end years of decline under absentee landlords
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The Independent Online
There are just 63 people living on the island of Eigg; fewer than in a modest-sized block of flats in any town or city.

They love their Inner Hebridean home and are determined to keep it theirs, despite its absentee landlord, a mysterious German artist called Maruma, putting it on the market for pounds 2m.

Which is why, yesterday, the islanders launched a world-wide appeal, with a target of pounds 800,000, to help them buy and manage Eigg's 7,534 acres - while hoping that the bulk of the money will come from National Lottery funds.

Eigg has become the symbol of a debate which must soon come to a head. The issue is whether individuals have the right to dominate the destinies of whole communities through private ownership of land.

Is our society, uniquely in Europe, still prepared to tolerate an untrammelled free market in this most fundamental of commodities?

In the lottery of ownership, Eigg has fared particularly badly over the past 25 years. Previously it had been sheltered by the benign proprietorship of the Runciman shipping family.

Then in 1972, Eigg passed into the hands of a fraudulent charitable trust run by a Cockney chancer with the self-awarded title of "Commander". By the time the racket was exposed, the island was in sharp decline and there were calls for it to be brought into public ownership.

The Highlands and Islands Development Board was on the verge of implementing this when Olympic bobsleigher Keith Schellenberg intervened, boasting that it was his ideological purpose to prevent public ownership.

He stayed, intermittently, for almost 20 years to the increasing anguish and open hostility of the population.

When Eigg came back on the market in 1994, the highest bidder proved to be Maruma, whose interest in the island extended to flogging off the remaining livestock and setting foot on it twice, before deciding to sell.

Once again, the people who live there are expected to wait and see who the new owner is.

Only this time, it just might be different - and that is because of Eigg's status as a symbol for the wider debate.

Conservation and public bodies, along with sympathetic individuals, just might chip in enough money to make community ownership a reality.

There are several recent precedents where communities, notably Assynt in Sutherland, have managed to buck the market on their own account. The demand now is for a more systematic channel through which community ownership can be made an option in all such cases. Inspiration can be found in the National Land Fund, created by Hugh Dalton in his first post-war budget.

Its purpose was to acquire land for the enjoyment of all and the benefit of the nation and many estates owned by the National Trusts and other quasi-public bodies were acquired via the NLF.

But, during the 1950s, the Tories neutered it and then turned it into the National Heritage Memorial Fund, devoted to the purchase of stately homes. Land was forgotten.

There are now signs of the wheel turning full circle. Weighed down with lottery money, the National Heritage Memorial Fund has begun to recognise that land is also part of the national heritage and assisted with the purchase of several estates.

Now Eigg, so often the victim of a lottery, is looking for help from that source, too.