Eigg (/ɛɡ/; Scottish Gaelic: Eige, [ˈekʲə] ( listen)) is one of the Small Isles, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. It lies to the south of the Skye and to the north of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Eigg is 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) long from north to south, and 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) east to west. With an area of 12 square miles (31 km2), it is the second largest of the Small Isles after Rùm. Eigg generates virtually 100% of its electricity using renewable energy.
|Pronunciation||[ˈekʲə] ( listen)|
|Meaning of name||Scottish Gaelic for 'notched island' (eag)|
Eigg shown within Lochaber
|OS grid reference|
|Island group||Small Isles|
|Area||3,049 hectares (11.8 sq mi)|
|Area rank||28 |
|Highest elevation||An Sgurr 393 metres (1,289 ft)|
|Sovereign state||United Kingdom|
|Population rank||47 |
|Population density||2.7 people/km2|
|Scots Gaelic:||An Laimhrig|
|Pronunciation:||[əˈlˠ̪ajvɾʲɪkʲ] ( listen)|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈkʰliət̪al] ( listen)|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈekʲə] ( listen)|
|Scots Gaelic:||Uamh Fhraing|
|Pronunciation:||[ˈuəv ˈɾaŋʲkʲ] ( listen)|
The centre of the island is a moorland plateau, rising to 393 metres (1,289 ft) at An Sgurr, a dramatic stump of pitchstone, sheer on three sides. Walkers who reach the top can, in good weather, take in views of Mull, Coll, Muck, the Outer Hebrides, Rùm, Skye, and the mountains of Lochaber on the mainland.
The plateau in the northern part of the island, at Beinn Buidhne, drops to a fertile coastal plain on its western side, containing Cleadale (cliff-valley), the main settlement on Eigg. At the southern end of the plain, in the centre of the island, lies the bay of Laig, known for its quartz beach, called the "singing sands" (Tràigh a' Bhìgeil) on account of the squeaking noise it makes if walked on when dry.
The plateau is cleaved by a central valley, stretching from the vicinity of Laig, in the north, to Glamisdale at its south-eastern end, which forms the main port. Beyond the south east coast lies the small islet of Eilean Chathastail.
Adomnán calls the island Egea insula in his Vita Columbae (c. 700 AD). Other historical names have been Ega, Ego, Ege, Egge, Egg and Eige. A 2013 study suggested two origins: Gaelic eig, meaning "notch", or Norse egg or eggjar, meaning "a sharp edge on a mountain", as in Egge, Sogn og Fjordane.
At Rubh' An Tangaird[note 1], near the southern coast, there are the remains of an oval house, with thick walls, and an upright stone at each side of the doorway, suggestive of grandeur; comparable structures in Shetland[note 2] suggest a neolithic date.
The island also appears to have been occupied towards the end of the neolithic era, and start of the Bronze Age, as a cache of flints has been found west of Galmisdale, including a thumbnail scraper, and a barbed-and-tanged arrowhead, typical of the Beaker People has been found to the south of Kildonan[note 3]. Later in the Bronze Age, the location of the Glamisdale cache[note 4] was used for metalworking; moulds for axes and knives typical of the period from 1000-800 BC have been discovered there[note 5], together with significant metalworking debris[note 6].
Early Iron Age hut circles are found throughout the island. One of the most curious is located near the North East coast, as it contains a cave within its bounds, to which walls have been artificially added; several hammerstones, are located in the cave and surrounding vicinity, some with concretions of crushed shells stuck to them. The cave site is below a dramatic basalt shaft interrupting the general appearance of the cliffs, and is framed by two large boulders, one of which resembles an eagle[note 8]; archaeologists have thus concluded that the site must have been regarded as special, possibly being used for hermitic purposes[note 9] (being too remote and difficult to reach for ordinary domestic use), and have named the site the oracle cave.
Later in the Iron Age, the inhabitants of Eigg chose to fortify the island. Small fortifications restrict access to rocky knolls[note 10], a promontory [note 11], and a stack[note 12]; a wall also bars access to the top of An Sgurr, a quarter of a mile west from the summit, except for a single narrow entrance[note 13]. More substantial Duns existed at Galmisdale Point[note 14], at Upper Grulin[note 15], and at Loch nam Ban Mora; the last of these is located on a natural island (entirely encompassed by the Dun's walls[note 16]), which local traditions claim was once inhabited by unusually large women[note 17].
The Irish missionary activity which brought Columba to Iona also brought Donnán to Eigg, where he attempted to establish a monastery, at Kildonnan[note 18]. According to traditional legends, a Pictish queen took objection to this breach of her sovereignty, and sent agents to Eigg to kill him[note 19], which they did on the eve of Easter, in 617; traditionally, Donnán had a large number of companions with him[note 20], whom he requested were killed first[note 21]. Regardless of whether accounts of Donnán's death are pious forgeries or not, the monastic community continued (or was re-populated) after Donnán's death, under the authority of Iona.
By the following century, the monastery was significant enough for the death of its superior[note 22], Oan, to be mentioned in the Annals of Ulster. The monastery was located within an oval enclosure, surrounded by a ditch, housing a rectangular chapel in the centre, and a handful of smaller buildings either side[note 23]. A handful of early inscribed stone slabs were located there[note 24], of which one bears a Pictish design, comprising a hunting scene[note 25]; the cross on its obverse is in a style which was fashionable in the 9th century.
On the coast at the opposite side of the island[note 26], with a good view of Rùm, are 16 square cairns, lined up neatly into groups; they are each between 6 and 12 feet wide, most being bordered by a stone kerb, and some having upright corner stones. This form of cairn is usually associated with the Pictish kingdoms of Ce and Fortriu, a particularly close match being found at Garbeg[note 27], within the latter; comparable examples date to the early 8th century. The site may have some connection with the contemporary monastery at Kildonnan
From 833, Norse settlers established the Kingdom of the Isles throughout the Hebrides. A silver/bronze sword handle from the beginning of this period was found[note 28] buried near Kildonnan[note 29], together with an iron axehead, leather belt, buckle, wollen cloth, and a whetstone; the body which to which these would once have belonged was absent. Wetlands near Laig[note 30] appear to have been used for storing partly finished boat parts, as was common in Viking Scandinavia (moist timber is easier to modify); a few oak posts, 6 feet in length, for the stern of a longship, have been found here, together with a simple bronze brooch[note 31].
Despite being a dependency of the Norwegian king, a mid-11th century revolt by Somerled left practical authority with his heirs; the strip from Uist to the Rough Bounds, which contained the Small Isles, was ruled by the MacRory branch. In 1266, the Treaty of Perth transferred the Kingdom of the Isles to the Scottish king, while expressly preserving the power of its local rulers; the MacRory lands became the Lordship of Garmoran, a quasi-independent crown dependency, rather than an intrinsic part of Scotland.
After nearly a century, the sole MacRory heir was Amy of Garmoran, who married John of Islay, leader of the MacDonalds, the most powerful group among Somerled's heirs. A decade later, they divorced, and John deprived his eldest son, Ranald, of the ability to inherit the MacDonald lands; as compensation, John granted Lordship of the Uists to Ranald's younger brother Godfrey, and made Ranald Lord of the remainder of Garmoran, including Eigg. At around this time, a large cross was built at Kildonnan[note 33]; local traditions report that there were a series of such crosses arranged along the island, now only indicated by placenames[note 34]
However, when Ranald died, Godfrey seized his lands, leading to violent disputes between his heirs (the Siol Gorrie) and those of Ranald (Clan Ranald). In 1427, fed up with this behaviour, king James I arrested the leaders, and declared the Lordship of Garmoran forfeit. In 1469, James' grandson (James III) granted Lairdship of the lands of mainland Garmoran John of Ross, leader of the MacDonalds. In turn, John passed it to his own half-brother, Hugh of Sleat; the grant to Hugh was confirmed by the king in a 1493 charter, but Clan Ranald continued to dispute the transfer.
Following Hugh of Sleat's death in 1498, his son, John of Sleat, resigned his position, giving his lands to the king[note 35]. John of Ross, though still living, had forfeited his own realm, which at the start of the 16th century lead Black Donald to launch a rebellion, seeking to restore them. Unlike other descendants of John of Islay, Ranald Bane, leader of Clan Ranald, had refused to support the rebellion, so in 1505, once the rebellion was defeated, the king rewarded him with lairdship of Eigg (and Arisaig). In 1520, the excessive cruelty[note 36] of Ranald Bane's son, Dougall, lead to his assassination, and leadership of Clan Ranald instead passed to Ranald Bane's brother, Alexander, and then Alexander's son, John Moidartach; in 1532, the king provided a charter confirming John's position as laird of Eigg (and Arisaig)[note 37].
Writing in 1549, Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles wrote of "Egge" that it was: "gude mayne land with ane paroch kirk in it, with mony solenne geis; very gude for store, namelie for scheip, with ane heavin for heiland Galayis".[note 38]
In 1577, according to Clan Ranald tradition, a group of MacLeods were being hosted on Eigg, when they became over-amorous towards local women. As a result, the local men rounded the MacLeods up, and cast them adrift in the Minch, until they were rescued by MacLeods from elsewhere. Wanting revenge, a group of MacLeods landed on Eigg, but had been spotted by the islanders, who decided to hide in an obscure cave called the Cave of Frances[note 39] (Scottish Gaelic: Uamh Fhraing) located on the south coast; the entrance to the cave is tiny[note 40], and was obscured by moss, undergrowth, and a small waterfall.
The traditions go on to say that the MacLeods conducted a thorough but fruitless search for the inhabitants, but after 3–5 days, just as the MacLeods were leaving, they saw someone leave the cave, and were able to follow their footprints to the entrance. The MacLeods re-directed the water, piled thatch and roof timbers at the cave entrance, and set fire to it; water dampened the flames, so that the cave was filled with smoke, asphyxiating everyone inside[note 41]. 395 people had been inside[note 42]; only one inhabitant of Eigg survived, an old woman, who had not sought refuge in the cave.
Serious doubts remain about the veracity of the tale; in later times a minister of Eigg stated "the less I enquired into its history ... the more I was likely to feel I knew something about it.". Nonetheless, human remains in the cave have been reported over the centuries[note 43]; though most of the remains have since been removed and buried elsewhere[note 44], natural disturbances in the soil occasionally uncover further remains[note 45].
Clan Ranald had aided the MacDonalds in a longstanding feud against the MacLeans of Duart concerning the Rhinns of Islay. In 1588, some of the remains of the Spanish Armada found refuge with the MacLeans; Lachlan, the MacLean leader, demanded that they supply soldiers in return, which he used to launch an attack against the MacDonalds. After initial failures, Lachlan chose to attack the Small Isles, as a softer, weakly defended target, instead; Eigg was burnt and pillaged. Lachlan was imprisoned in Edinburgh by the king for this[note 46], but he escaped, and faced no further punishment[note 47].
Long obliged to perform penance for his part in Dougall's assassination, John Moidartach made a vow to build a number of churches, including Kildonnan Chapel. By the time it was built, the Scottish reformation had occurred, and the Kildonnan Chapel is typical of the post-Reformation style. It was built directly on top of the site of one of the earlier monastic buildings. The fate of the original monastic chapel – which lay south of this – is unclear, but the reformation may have caused it to be abandoned and dismantled; indeed, the Kildonnan Chapel itself doesn't appear to have been finished. The statutes of Iona, in 1610, had introduced a programme of government oversight of the religious behaviour of highland leaders; the Clan Ranald leader's consent to this had resulted in the king granting him a charter confirming his lairdship of Eigg (and his other possessions).
In 1623, however, the Irish Roman Catholic church sent Cornelius Ward[note 48], a Franciscan friar, to North Western Scotland, in order to proselytise the population. On arriving at Castle Tioram, the seat of Clan Ranald leadership, the leader, John MacDonald, granted him protection throughout Clan Ranald lands. In 1625, Cornelius arrived on Eigg, and reported that Kildonnan Chapel was a roofless ruin; he makes no reference to events of massacre cave, and reports the island as having 200 inhabitants, all of whom he claims to have converted to Roman Catholicism. Apparently there had been a Protestant minister on the island, but John MacDonald persuaded him to turn a blind eye, by offering him the island's tithes.
Cornelius refused to consecrate the Chapel in its roofless state, and it came to only be used for burials. One grave had a carved cover with a roughly worked depiction of an occupant, sleeping; the portion below the waist and wrists is now missing, leading to the 17th/18th century grave slab being popularly re-interpreted as a medieval sheela na gig[note 49]. The Chapel also contains a Clan Ranald burial recess, dated to 1641[note 50]; traditionally this is the burial place of Ranald MacDonald of Morar, a famed piper who farmed Sandavore near the end of his life[note 51], but he was not even born until 1662.
As committed Roman Catholics, Clan Ranald took part in the first Jacobite rebellion, in 1689. According to Clan Ranald tradition, in May of the following year Edward Pottinger, a Royal Navy captain from Ulster, decided to take revenge for this, by inducing his men to carry out large scale rape and murder on Eigg; the ship's log for Pottinger's ship, however, does not mention these events[note 52]. To evade the restrictions the government subsequently imposed on Roman Catholic services, the remaining inhabitants of Eigg began to secretly hold services in a large high-roofed cave, which became known as the cave of worship[note 53] (now Cathedral Cave).
Eigg tenants also joined the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and of 1745; the leader of the Eigg branch of Clan Ranald – MacDonald of Laig – also commanded the tenants from Canna (another Clan Ranald property) who took part. Whether or not the events of 1690 were simply blood libel rather than gunboat diplomacy, there was certainly retribution in 1746. All 38 surviving men who had taken part in the rebellions were arrested by the navy and imprisoned in the Tower of London; though many died from natural causes, the remaining 16 were eventually sent to Barbados, to work on sugar cane plantations.
The 18th century introduction of the potato to Eigg, as a food crop, lead to increased health and fecundity; by the end of the century, the population had expanded to over 500 people, farming oats and cattle, in addition to potatoes. The leader of Clan Ranald built a mill to grind the oats, and charged islanders to use it; since they had their own hand-querns, he instructed his agents to break them, so that the islanders had no choice but to use the mill.
The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars created a potential new route to wealth, by limiting foreign supplies of valuable minerals: kelp could be harvested to produce minerals like soda ash. Kelp rapidly increased in price, so in 1817, the laird reduced the size of each tenancy (for example, Cleadale was re-arranged into 28 plots), to stop them being self-sufficient, thus forcing tenants to harvest kelp in order to break even.However, soon after the creation of these smaller tenancies (crofts), foreign mineral supplies were re-introduced, as the Napoleonic Wars had ended. The kelp price crashed, and crofters struggled to avoid destitution.
In 1821, several families emigrated to Nova Scotia to escape the poverty[note 54]; they settled on a high plateau near the coast of the Northumberland Strait, which they named Eigg Mountain. The laird, his income also having collapsed, planned to recover his position by evicting tenants from Cleadale, and using the land for sheep farming; however, in 1827 he found someone willing to purchase Eigg, and cancelled the planned eviction. After 800 years in the same family, Clan Ranald rule of Eigg was at an end.
The buyer was Dr Hugh MacPherson[note 55], and for a while island society carried on normally. The Scottish geologist and writer Hugh Miller visited the island in the 1840s and wrote a long and detailed account of his explorations in his book The Cruise of the Betsey (published in 1858). Miller was a self-taught geologist; so the book contains detailed observations of the geology of the island, including the Scuir and the singing sands. He describes the islanders of Eigg as "an active, middle-sized race, with well-developed heads, acute intellects, and singularly warm feelings". He describes seeing the bones of adults and children in family groups with the charred remains of their straw mattresses and small household objects still in Massacre Cave; Walter Scott was so appalled and moved on hearing about this, that he started a fund for a Christian burial, which resulted in their removal.
In 1847, the financial woes of the crofters were compounded when the Highland Potato Famine struck. Dr MacPherson decided that now was the time to evict his tenants, and replace them with sheep, the price of wool having recently undergone substantial increases. In 1853, the whole of the village of Gruilin – fourteen families – were forced to leave Eigg; Brae was cleared in 1858. In 1862, he built Sandavore church to serve the religious needs of the remaining Church of Scotland residents. At the end of the century, in 1893, he sold the island to Lawrence Thompson, who built a church for Roman Catholic residents of the island (St. Donnan's church in Cleadale)[note 56].
After being sold by Thompson in 1917, the island passed through various hands, including a cabinet minister[note 57], until being purchased by Kieth Schellenberg[note 58]. Unlike his predecessors, who had sought to use the resources of the island for their own power, profit, or leisure, Schellenberg had conservationist motives; he wished to restore its listed buildings, and preserve the natural environment.
In the early 1990s, a fire at Schellenberg's home on the island destroyed a 1920s Rolls-Royce; Police suspected the fire was due to arson. Some locals claimed that since the late 1980s, he had neglected homes, closed the community hall, and restricted leases. While admitting that he had closed the community hall (but only in the evenings), and had refused to continue one particular lease, he told the press that "drunken hippies and drop-outs" were unfairly branding him a despot. In 1994, now in his 60s, Schellenberg concluded that trying to conserve the island was not worth facing violent intimidation for, and in the following year sold it to Marlin Eckhard, an artist from Germany; Schellenberg retained ownership of the 18th century Manse.
Nevertheless, by then a community trust had been formed by the Highland Council, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and a number of residents – particularly those newly moved to the island – with a view to buying Eigg from the laird. In 1997, this Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust persuaded Eckhard to sell, and bought it from him. The ceremony to mark the handover took place a few weeks after the 1997 General Election and was attended by the Scottish Office Minister, Brian Wilson, a long-standing advocate of land reform; he used the occasion to announce the formation of a Community Land Unit within Highlands and Islands Enterprise to support further land buy-outs in the region.
Between then and the 2011 census, the ordinarily resident population expanded from 65 to 83; this increase of 24% (six times greater than for the Scottish islands as a whole[note 59]) was principally formed by young people who have moved to Eigg to set up in business, as well as a handful of former residents returning to the island. However, by 2003, the residents' representatives on the trust's board were entirely people who had moved to the island since the trust took over. A number of the longstanding residents complain that the trust focuses on the new residents, while ignoring the concerns of the families who have lived on the island for generations; for example, they complain that new mains power connections, and housing provision, is given to the families of trust members, not indigenous islanders. One islander from an old Eigg family declared that the trust "is not a democracy ... it is the mafia".
Eilean Chathastail lighthouse viewed from the Mallaig-Eigg ferry.
|Year first constructed||1906|
|Tower shape||cylindrical tower with balcony and lantern|
|Markings / pattern||white tower and lantern|
|Height||8 metres (26 ft)|
|Focal height||24 metres (79 ft)|
|Light source||solar power|
|Range||8 nautical mile|
|Characteristic||Fl W 6s.|
|Managing agent||Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust|
Eigg lighthouse is an active lighthouse located on the south-eastern corner of the islet of Eilean Chathastail, one of the smaller Small Isles about 110 metres (360 ft) off Eigg. The lighthouse was built in 1906 to a design by David A. and Charles Alexander Stevenson; it is a cylindrical metal tower only 8 metres (26 ft) high with gallery and lantern painted white. It is a minor light among those owned by Northern Lighthouse Board but day-to-day management rests with the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. The light emits a white flash every 6 seconds.
Tourism is important to the local economy, especially in the summer months, and the first major project of the Heritage Trust was An Laimhrig, a new building near the jetty to house the island's shop and post office, Galmisadale Bay restaurant and bar, a craft shop, and toilet and shower facilities, which are open 24 hours a day. There are two ferry routes to the island. A'Nead Hand Knitwear is a new island business making garments such as cobweb shawls and scarves.
There is a sheltered anchorage for boats at Galmisdale in the south of the island. In 2004 the old jetty there was extended to allow a roll-on roll-off ferry to dock. The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry Lochnevis sails a circular route from Mallaig around the four "Small Isles"—Eigg, Canna, Rùm and Muck from the fishing port of Mallaig. Arisaig Marine also runs a passenger ferry called the MV Sheerwater from April until late September from Arisaig on the mainland.
The next major project of the Heritage Trust was to enable the provision of a mains electricity grid, powered from renewable sources. Previously, the island was not served by mains electricity and individual crofthouses had wind, hydro or diesel generators and the aim of the project is to develop an electricity supply that is environmentally and economically sustainable.
The new system incorporates a 9.9 kWp PV system, three hydro generation systems (totalling 112 kW) and a 24 kW wind farm supported by stand-by diesel generation and batteries to guarantee continuous availability of power. A load management system has been installed to provide optimal use of the renewables. This combination of solar, wind and hydro power should provide a network that is self-sufficient and powered 98% from renewable sources. On 1 February 2008 the system was switched on. Eigg Electric generates a finite amount of energy and so Eigg residents agreed from the outset to cap electricity use at 5 kW at any one time for households, and 10 kW for businesses. If renewable resources are low, for example when there is less rain or wind, a "traffic light" system asks residents to keep their usage to a minimum. The traffic light reduces demand by up to 20% and ensures there's always enough energy for everyone.
The Heritage Trust has formed a company, Eigg Electric Ltd, to operate the new £1.6 million network, which has been part funded by the National Lottery and the Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company.
In September 2008, Eigg began a year-long series of projects as part of their success as one of ten finalists in NESTA's Big Green Challenge. While the challenge finished in September 2009, the work to make the island "green" is continuing with solar water panels, alternative fuels, mass domestic insulation, transport and local food all being tackled. In May 2009, the island hosted the "Giant's Footstep Family Festival", which included talks, workshops, music, theatre and advice about what individuals and communities can do to tackle climate change.
In January 2010, Eigg was announced as one of three joint winners in NESTA's Big Green Challenge, winning a prize of £300,000. Eigg also won the prestigious UK Gold Award in July 2010.
An average of 130 species of bird are recorded annually. The island has breeding populations of various raptors: golden eagle, buzzard, peregrine falcon, kestrel, hen harrier and short and long-eared owl. Great northern diver and jack snipe are winter visitors, and in summer cuckoo, whinchat, whitethroat and twite breed on the island.