Rainswept, remote, barren and broke - but it's all theirs

What will the 64 folk who live on Eigg do with their island?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Last week, the people of the Hebridean island of Eigg finally scraped together the pounds 1.5m needed to buy Eigg to run it as a community initiative with a conservation body. The writer has been recording the islanders' campaign for a book. An exclusive extract describes the last few days of their five-year struggle.

Friday: It's two minutes past four and the phone on Appeal Director Maggie Fyffe's scrap-hardboard desk rings for perhaps the 500th time that week.

When she hears that the islanders' five years of struggle to gain ownership of Eigg is over, her first emotion is one of overwhelming relief rather than the rush of euphoria she had always expected. That will come tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that.

She pauses for a moment to roll a cigarette and share the news with her immediate family before starting the delicious task of phoning around her larger family - the other islanders - to ignite their lives with a moment they will remember for the rest of their days.

Over in Kildonan, Marie Carr, a mother of five, whose family have been living under threat of eviction for three years, finds herself dancing around the kitchen madly shouting at the ceiling "Oh my God, I just can't believe it" before dancing some more. She says later that she never quite dared accept how much she wanted to hear the news until she actually heard it - and that when it came, it "nearly made me go daft".

In his croft on the west side, 70-year-old Angus Mackinnon is with fellow crofter Davie Robertson when the news comes through. He goes out to his land and wonders what his people, who have lived on that spot since 1650, would have made of it. He says he feels them in every blade of grass and knows they would have been delighted.

Up the hill, Ruari Kirk's 80th birthday party is interrupted by the phone purring under a pile of coats. A dozen jellied-up children laugh uproariously as a flustered mother excavates the wretched thing and then tells them the news that will shape the rest of all their lives.

Then they all gather at Maggie's and party until dawn.

Saturday: As blankets are thrown off for a late rise, many in the island community contemplate their future with a mixture of elation and concern. For two years, they have been working with experts on a business plan for the island so there is little confusion as to what has to be done. It's the prospect of actually doing it that makes them want to go back to bed.

The island is in a mess. The main building, the Lairds Lodge is a muddle of rot, asbestos and damp. The only shop has gone out of business. The only tearoom has been condemned by the health authorities. All the 12 estate holiday cottages have been vacant for five years. The estate farm, stripped of its stock, animal quotas and staff, is returning to its native jungle state.

This web of disaster is now owned by a community with little but loose change and serviced by a transport system that is so inefficient that it can take a week to get a gallon of petrol delivered from the mainland.

To restore this island to its fullest potential will cost millions of pounds and many years of unpaid work, and many of the islanders are already weary after their last struggle. Down at the pier house, the island handyman, "Bean" Keane, is gripped by a fierce pride as he tells me: "Sure it's going to be hard, but you know this morning I looked out at the mess on the pier, and for the first time in the seven years that I have lived here, I found myself thinking - I really must go down and clear up that mess, even though it wasn't really my mess. I felt that the whole island was now my home and I feel a huge pride in it all the time.

"If we can maintain that attitude, then we have nothing to fear from our future."

Monday: The answer machine in Maggie's office has become jammed with messages. There are anthropologists wanting to study the islanders, artists wanting to paint them, film-makers, weirdoes, the sick, sad and lonely all wanting to be part of a story of hope and community .

Maggie tells me that she heard that television programmes in Australia were interrupted by news bulletins announcing the buy-out; she laughs a rainbow of giggles at the daftness of it all and rolls another cigarette.

Next week, the islanders will vote in leaders to take the project forward and Maggie will start the thankless task of chasing up the pounds 154,000 of pledges that must be honoured if the islanders are to pay the asking price on the entry date of 12 June.

She is confident they will make it.

The future she tells me will be one of negotiation and work - and then more negotiation. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

Tuesday: I write these last words sitting in my study at Fulnary in Morvern, where my forebears have sat for the last 200 years, each in his turn recording the cultural genocide of our people - the Gaelic people. Each generation has seen the numbers of Gaelic speakers fall, so that while my great-great grandfather would have looked from this window and seen the neighbouring island of Mull with a Gaelic speaking population of more than 20,000, I gaze sadly on an island owned predominantly by non-resident foreigners where there are fewer than 60 Gaelic speakers.

It's my belief that the traditions of community and spirituality so deeply ingrained in all that is Gaelic have never been more needed by Britain than they are today and that we allow that culture to die at our peril.

On Eigg, we have seen a tiny group made up of troublesome, confident incomers and quiet native Gaels contrive and execute a radical project based on those principles and advance the cause of Gaelic revivalism in a way not seen in the Highlands for decades. Other communities may now follow their lead.

On a hilltop, a Gael once famously pronounced against Lord Leverhume's grandiose proposals for change: "We have one question to ask him and that is this - will he give us the land?"

Sixty-four Hebridean islanders now have their land. It will be interesting to see what the devil they do with it.