The scramble for Eigg

Maxwell MacLeod's diary charts the last stages of the inhabitants' race to buy the island
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The Independent Online
Monday 25 November: It is now only three days until we have to submit our bid to buy the island, and in every farmhouse, sheep pen and clapped out Escort van the talk among the 60 islanders is only of one thing: how much shall we bid?

When the island was first sold in 1828 it made pounds 15,000. Last year its current owner paid exactly one hundred times that, and now he wants pounds 2m, presumably to keep him out of the bankruptcy courts, as it is known that he borrowed a similar amount at 20 per cent from financiers all around the world.

The truth is that nobody here knows who owns their island. Some think that our fate will be decided by the mood of one of the present owner's alleged financiers, whom the press tell us is a clothes dealer in Hong Kong.

Today the islanders' inner cabinet steering group are meeting to decide, in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Highland Regional Council, how much they will bid. If they do get the island it will be immensely significant for the Gallic-speaking community in Scotland, and it is widely expected that many other estate communities will start demanding a greater say in their affairs.

Tuesday 26 November: An 18-foot whale has washed up dead on the beach. It is making many people talk and laugh about another whale that washed up on the nearby mainland three years ago.

The owner of the adjacent field phoned the authorities in London to ask what he should do with the rotting carcass, which was 30-foot long and stank horribly. Word came back that he should bury it immediately. The poor farmer did his best, but the soil was only 3-inches deep and the whale the size of a bus, so he phoned London again. Well, sink it, said the Sloaney voice. He tried, but the fish farmers threatened to sue him if the carcass damaged their millions of pounds of salmon stock in nearby cages.

"Take it out beyond the Continental Shelf," said London.

"That's over 100 miles away."

"Then blow it up!"

So they did: the authorities got some Glasgow navvies to fill the beast with explosives, but when they pressed the plunger the poor old whale merely shuddered like a jelly.

I can hardly describe the scene after the second, much larger charge was detonated. One witness said that none of the subsequent pieces of whale were bigger than a man's hand, and they all took a long time to come down.

The point of the tale is this: if the local people had been given a couple of hundred pounds, they would have disposed of the whale themselves. Many more disposal options were obvious to anyone up here. But nobody was asked, and when you have been treated like idiots for a couple of hundred years you tend not to bother putting your head above the parapet.

The people of Eigg don't want to own their island to make them feel important (like so many of the previous lairds who have owned the island): they want to own it simply to increase their slender chances of survival as a community.

Wednesday 27 November: My friend Peter Strachan, who is making a film here, has just spent the last 10 days trying to get five gallons of petrol for his car so that he can move his heavy equipment around the island. The petrol has to come on the thrice-weekly ferry from nearby Mallaig, but so far it hasn't arrived. Some days there has been Calor gas on the boat, other days too many people, and other days the sea has simply been too rough. Meanwhile, Peter has to carry his equipment on his back or hitches lifts from members of the island community. The thing is, you simply can't run a fragile island community under the constantly changing circumstances that are dictated by the weather and other unforeseen difficulties. Unless you have a strong belief that every ounce of your energy is being utilised to the maximum and that your plans won't be constantly thwarted by the vagaries of an absentee owner. Who might live in Stuttgart. Or Hong Kong.

Thursday 28 November: The islanders' bid had to be in by lunchtime today. How much did they bid? Did they put in any provisos? Were there other bidders? Nobody other than those in the inner cabinet knows the answer to these questions and we have all been doing our best to resist asking them. All day the islanders have been on tenterhooks with worry. At least one has been praying in the island chapel. Others have been doing their best not to think about it, it's all just too painful. And nobody has drunk a drop.

Late this afternoon a rumour started to circulate that there was one other bidder against us. By evening we heard that there were two, and by midnight someone else was talking about a Swiss consortium.

This can't be the right way to decide who runs one of Britain's most significant wildlife areas and a highly worthwhile Gallic community.

Friday 29 November: The rumour-mongers say that we'll know by next Wednesday who owns Eigg. Negotiations with fund-holders as to who will control the island are still at a highly sensitive stage.

We don't yet know whether this island has been sold (for the 10th time in 160 years) to yet another non-resident head-case, who will no doubt arrive wearing a deerstalker, call everybody by their first name and give them all bottles of whisky. The die has already been cast. Yesterday, at the crucial moment just after the bid had been put in, one of the Gallic speakers reminded me of another famous moment in the history of the Gallic- speaking people. A gentleman called Lord Leverhulme had just addressed a group of crofters high on a hill in Lewis and had suggested to them that if they did what they were told and worked in his fish factories and on his fishing boats then he would make them very rich.

At this one of the crofters stood on a rock and addressed the people with the following famous words: "This honey-mouthed man would have us believe that black is white and white is black. What care we for his fancy dreams that may or may not come true? The one question we must ask him is will you give us the land?" Today that call goes out once more from the Hebrides.

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