• Maggie Fyffe
Location:
Eigg
Date:
Thursday 4th February 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/001

Simon:

Do you remember your very first day on Eigg?

     

Maggie:

I think I just about do, really. It’s a long time ago, right enough. We arrived here. We were supposed to ... The guy who owned the island at the time, Keith Schellenberg, was supposed to send a landing craft over for us and all our belongings but it were broken down so he turned up in a yacht. So we could only bring limited amount of stuff with us. Prized possessions were a tray of sunflowers and various chickens ... And a two year old son of course! He was most put out because he could only bring a few toys with him and didn’t have all his belongings with him. (laughs)

 

Yeah, I loved it. I’d never actually been to Eigg before I moved here and when we moved we thought we’d maybe just be here for a wee while, just to see how it went. But we’ve been here ever since, yep.

Simon:

What was the community like here then?

     

Maggie:

It was quite a lot different then, really. There were an awful lot more of the original Eigg folk here who I suppose were getting on in years. At that point, most of the folk would’ve had a croft. And the island were very ... two separate halves really because there were the crofters in Cleadale, who were pretty independent from whoever happened to own the island at the time, and then the other side of the island were mainly people who had come in to work for Schellenberg, doing all sorts of different things. And a lot of the houses that were all tenanted were holiday cottages that the estate ran as a sort of holiday business. But it were just a different atmosphere then. There were a lot of enthusiasm when we first came here because previously the population had got quite low, so, I would say, that folk who were here at the time were really welcoming to people, especially if they were young families. You know, young children, the school had got really low so they saw all the new people arriving as being real ... breathing a bit of life into the place. But there were a lot of different ... I mean, the first few years we were here, there were a big turnover of staff so a lot of people came and went. It’s a shame because a lot of them were good folk that would’ve been really up for making a life here. But it was quite difficult working for Schellenberg. He was ... He just ... He would come and go an awful lot and change his mind an awful lot and interfere with what people were doing quite a lot, and he certainly weren’t very keen on giving people security of tenure, which was a lot of what led on to what we did later really. I mean, that were mainly the reason for the buy-out, to give people security and opportunities to run businesses and do whatever really.

Simon:

So what sort of things happened? Were people evicted at short notice?

     

Maggie:

Nobody actually got evicted. It were a long slow process. It’s really hard to actually describe. It went on for a big long period of years actually before people really felt that they wanted to take it on and go for a buy-out. But latterly, probably the thing that made everybody change their minds about what were going on and get on board with the buy-out was that he did send out eviction notices to two households for no apparent reason, really. Yeah, and that’s when everybody said: “We can’t allow this to happen, we really need to start thinking about what comes next.”

Simon:

So this would’ve been, what, early 90s?

     

Maggie:

Eh ... yes. I mean, the island got so ... Schellenberg’s son sold the island in ’95 to this slightly mysterious German artist who called himself Maruma and following that we kind of ... Initially we were disappointed that we got another owner. We were quite glad to see the back of Schellenberg, I have to say. He made life really difficult by then. So we were ... Maruma turned up and he kind of explained what he wanted to do and he reckoned he wanted to be part of the community and kind of sharing what the ideas we had. So we were sort of a bit optimistic. But it didn’t really last very long. It was only a few months into his ownership when people’s wages stopped being paid. He decided to sell the cattle. We thought we could maybe put a bid in for the cattle to sort of run us a community business, but they wouldn’t let us. They insisted they went off to market. And then he started being investigated for fraud, or so the papers said, for a figure of £1.5 million which just happened to be what he paid for Eigg so there were all kinds of things that told us that this were going belly up and we should really start getting ourselves organised for real! (laughs) Stop talking about it and actually do it!

Simon:

What were the first concrete steps that people took?

     

Maggie:

We’d actually been talking about it for quite some time. I suppose it goes back to probably ’91 I think, when the original Eigg Trust was set up, and that was set up by four individuals who had a real interest in land reform and some connection with Eigg in some shape or form. They set up the Eigg Trust with a view to buying Eigg. They kind of brought the ideas to Eigg and everybody voted in favour of what they were aiming to do. Nobody felt ... I think the sort of crucial thing in it all is that folk probably didn’t have the confidence at that point to actually go for it themselves. So the Eigg Trust, in a way, were a good vehicle. It kind of started the ball rolling. And we had a lot of workshops, community planning workshops. Then, and over the next few years really, and we spent one winter in particular where we went through every aspect of life on Eigg really. We broke it down into sort of headings like ‘Infrastructure’, ‘Agriculture’, ‘Tourism’ ... you know, we went through each individual heading and there was somebody from every household attending the workshops, and we built up a picture of how people wanted to see Eigg develop or areas that they didn’t want to see developed, and that’s always been the basis for what we’ve done here, really. And we just started going to different ... at the time there was an organisation called Highlands and Islands Forum that ran a series of conferences that were looking at different kinds of community enterprises, really, including land ownership but not only that. There was community owned woodland and even down to a community hall. You know, there were all sorts of different aspects and through that an awful lot of us met an awful lot of different people from different communities and that started giving people a bit more confidence. We got better at running meetings, we got ourselves a bit better organised and that’s how it slowly came together. And the Scottish Wildlife Trust have had a presence here for a long time. They’ve always managed the SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) sites here and have had a summer warden here for a long period of time now. They had expressed an interest in being part of some kind of community buy-out. They didn’t want to buy Eigg themselves, they didn’t want to be responsible for the whole thing, but they were happy to be a part of it. And the Highland Council, their Land and Environment Select Committee had voted in favour of helping any community who wanted to try and buy the land so they were there as well, expressing an interest. And that’s how we came to have the partnership that still stands, that’s how the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust is made up, of three partners: the residents, the SWT (Scottish Wildlife Trust), and the council.

Simon:

And do you feel it was absolutely necessary to buy it in order to develop the community? Do you think that the landowners would have supported you to develop the community the way you were wanting or was it absolutely essential to ...?

     

Maggie:

I think it were absolutely essential because although there’s an awful lot of different kinds of house ownership or tenancies here, there are a number of Trust properties ... Well, they’re now Trust properties that were then owned by the estate, and nobody had a secure tenancy. Not one single person had a lease that said they could still be there in ten years time. If you’ve not got a tenancy, you can’t try and apply for any sort of home improvements. The same went for farmland. People were actually farming but they didn’t have a secure tenancy. Same with that, you’re not going to invest in something or try to get additional funding for something unless you’ve got absolute security over it. There were other things ... During Maruma’s time, we tried to do a community woodland scheme and we asked Maruma could we lease the woodland so that we could apply for Millennium Forest Funding. He didn’t agree to it, so that’s another example. The shop didn’t have a lease here and were run on an ad hoc basis, unsuitable building ... you know, there were all these things that the infrastructure of the place were going downhill badly and folk just ... and even like ourselves who live in a croft house and so were independent, if we’d seen two or three families leaving you might start thinking about leaving yourselves. It were a community that were suffering badly for insecurity and instability and opportunity, I would say.

Simon:

That’s quite interesting because in a way the Crofters Act 1886 and various revisions, one of it’s key points was to provide security of tenure and yet what you’ve just listed highlights the same dilemmas that were facing crofters back in the nineteenth century are affecting communities today.

     

Maggie:

Yeah. And at one point, we thought about going for a community buy-out just for the croft land. We might’ve gone ahead with it if things hadn’t worked out the way that they did but we didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want to split Eigg up, you know? Although the crofters all had security, there were a big chunk of the island that didn’t and we felt that it were necessary to keep the whole thing in one piece, which we managed to do which is great.

Simon:

So now with the ... just to talk about land ownership, how’s the land managed now? How many other people are private owners or does everyone lease from the Trust or ...?

     

Maggie:

In the main, we own the whole of Eigg apart from small areas that are private houses that have been bought outright in the past. There are bitties just like the school’s owned by the Education Authority, the doctor’s is owned by the Health Board. You know, wee bits here and there that are privately owned. Then there’s all the croft land, a few owner-occupiers but, in the main, tenants. There are five houses here that are owned and leased out by Lochaber Housing Association. There are, I think, eight tenanted properties that the Trust owns and they’re all on long leases. And then there are three farms and that pretty much takes into account all the land here, excluding croft land. There’s Kildonnan Farm, Sandavore Farm and Laig Farm and they’re all tenanted so technically we own all the land but other people have got responsibility for it.

Simon:

And how does the people with croft land ... What sort of percentage are long-term crofting families in the area and what percentage have come in ...?

     

Maggie:

There’s very few of the original crofters still here. There’s one or two. We’ve worked really hard to try and revive crofting a wee bit. We’ve created four new crofts in Trust history with a view to getting more people into crofting and we’re working with the Crofters Commission to try and address all the usual issues like absentees and land that’s not being worked. Ach, I would say it’s still ... You know, there’s a group of people working very hard to make it viable but we’ve got a wee bit to go yet, I would say. But it’s interesting, I think, what people are doing with the crofts these days. I mean, there’s definitely been a change in ... you know, people don’t tend to do what would’ve been traditional thirty year ago even. People are growing a lot more vegetables. My husband is growing trees from seed on his croft. Eddie, who I think you met yesterday, he’s just got a license to harvest and sell bluebell seeds. People are doing a wee bit of ... they’ve maybe got ... like we have a bothy that we rent out. So there’s lots of different things going on on crofts these days than would’ve been thirty year ago.

Simon:

The impression I get, in terms of the viability of crofting, is one of the things that’s really affected it in recent times has been the shift in the bigger infrastructure in how food production is managed and this seems to have had quite a big effect because there’s less of a local market.

     

Maggie:

Yep. That’s something ... I find it really interesting what’s going on here now. I mean, there’s a big interest right this minute and it’s all part and parcel of what we’ve been doing to cut carbon emissions but it’s something which I’m sure, again, goes for lots of other communities. We’re looking at ways we can maximise our local food here and that would include meat production. I mean, that just seems criminal to me, that if you’re a meat eater your meat comes from Mallaig when this place has got all these cows and sheep around everywhere, you know? And that’s something we’re looking at quite seriously. We’re hoping we can maybe build some sort of a community kitchen idea that you could process different things.

Simon:

Are you looking to have local abattoir facilities?

     

Maggie:

That would be great but I don’t think a local abattoir’s going to work here. It’s not a big enough place but, you know, there’s ways around that part of it. You know, you could take a beast to the abattoir and have it back and process it here. But I think that there’s a growing interest and growing interest from accommodation providers as well, that the food that they put on the table is as locally sourced as possible. So there’s a lot more people growing vegetables now. There’s a lot more poly-tunnels going up over the last couple of years. There are two guest houses and there’s the tea room at the pier. So there are ways of selling your produce, during the summer months anyway.

Simon:

You said it’s part of the ... your approach to food is generally part of your approach to environmental issues in ways and one thing that’s really noticeable in Eigg is that you really seem to be addressing that on all levels, on multiple levels.

     

Maggie:

That’s an interesting process in itself actually but just the beginnings of it was we’ve never had mains electric here and that’s been an issue that’s been talked about for as long as I can remember. (laughs) I’m sure it were an issue thirty odd year ago and it continues to be an issue. You know, traditionally most people had a generator running their own house. Some people had a windmill or a micro hydro but running a generator were just a complete menace of a thing. It’s a machine, it breaks down, it needs servicing. The diesel comes over in a landing craft, gets pumped out into barrels, the barrels get shifted around ... you know, just the whole palaver. Certainly not very environmentally friendly. But anyway, we established that no electricity company were going to lay a sub-sea cable to provide us with mains electric. I think with forty odd houses nobody saw that as being a sound investment! (laughs) So it must’ve been probably some time in the 90s, late 90s early 2000s, we started thinking seriously about our own grid system here and everybody agreed that the most sensible way to do it was by a mixture of renewables. We had a feasibility study done and that recommended the three renewables that we’ve ended up with: PVs (photovoltaics, solar power), windmills and hydro power linked together to a grid network. Of course there’d never been a grid out here either, so the network of cabling ... that were large part of the expense of the project actually, was cabling up to every household the actual network throughout the island. And then of course we had to find the money to do it and the total project cost were £1.6 million so it took us quite a while to actually draw it all together as a project and we got funding from quite a wide range of sources. There were a lot of different elements kind of all fixed together and, yeah, eventually we got the money and the project went ahead. That were an inspiring project altogether. There were ... The contract went to Scottish Hydro Contracting and we employed a company called Synergy Scotland who acted as our project managers and we had a whole network of people here who managed the day to day ... different aspects of it on a day to day basis. But it went really well and damn near stayed to budget as well. You know, cos obviously a project of that size, we were a wee bit worried that it would overrun and, you know, how do we manage that? So we had to keep a really close rein on the whole spending and on how the whole thing were going and it really did work. Everybody worked really well together. It were a project that ... it was a pleasure to be a part of it.

Simon:

That’s owned by the community as well is it?

     

Maggie:

Yeah, we set up a ... how we’ve managed different aspects of what we’ve done, we’ve set up subsidiary companies if necessary and that was a necessity, Eigg Electric, so it’s a subsidiary of the Trust and it’s all managed locally. And yeah, it’s been running for almost two years. It must just be ... very shortly’s the anniversary of it being switched on. We did have a wee bit of teething troubles initially but it’s working really, really well. And we’ve ... One of the decisions that we took ... well, obviously there were several decisions that we took but, you know, we discussed with everybody initially ... People know what kind of costs were involved with running the generator so we kind of asked people what they’d be willing to pay as a unit charge and then worked out how the community ... what it needed to operate and managed to come up with a figure. It costs 20p a unit at the moment. And what we did, to save the hassle of sending out bills every quarter, we installed meters into everybody’s house, prepayment meters. So, basically, once a week I sell electricity cards so it means people are not faced with big bills after a quarter. They can buy as little or as much as they want. And we also agreed at a community meeting that we would, each household would, restrict itself to a 5 kilowatt cap and businesses to a 10 kilowatt cap, and, basically, what that means is if you were to put on your washing machine, your tumble drier and your Hoover at the same time you would trip your system. So a switch would trip off and you would have to pay for a maintenance person to come and reset it. Obviously that were a disincentive for people to do it. We also provided everybody with an OWL meter (an electricity meter that monitors usage levels) which has got an alarm that’s set to go off just before 5 kilowatts. But because people have been used to working with generators, it’s actually been quite easily for people to work within those boundaries and really it’s a case you can use ... apart from you can’t have a power shower, you can use everything that folk would use on the mainland but just not all at the same time and that way we find that we can manage the system better. It means that you don’t run the risk of at some time during the day everybody putting everything on at the same time. It just makes it ... it makes it more fair, I suppose.

Simon:

It sounds like there’s quite a strong level of community involvement in decision making then?

     

Maggie:

Yes, there is. And that’s been from before the buy-out. We’ve had to do that, really, to make sure that what were happening and what people really wanted. So the Residents Association is the forum for that, and that’s open to everybody that’s a permanent resident here over the age of eighteen. We do hold regular meetings. We probably hold a meeting once a month, a residents meeting. Then directors of the Trust, local directors, of which there are four, meet around every three or four weeks and then the board, which involves directors from the mainland from the other partners, they meet probably once a quarter. But all those meetings are minuted and all those minutes are circulated, so everybody is pretty well informed and has the opportunity to input into ... but certainly, like the electric supply, we would hold a meeting specifically for that purpose to discuss different aspects of it. And then more recently we’ve got a Green Team, just to add to the ... (laughs) ... and the Green Team has been working solely on all the energy saving measures and that’s been fantastic. That has given people the opportunity to have a lot more of a hands-on approach I think, just because we were doing lots of different projects. You know, if somebody had ... just for instance, a wood fuel feasibility study. You know, a group of people with a particular interest in wood fuel have got together and managed that aspect. And that’s happened with all the different bits we’ve been doing. I don’t really know, I think ... I’m trying to rationalise it really. I think there’s been so much recently about climate change. If you just watch the news or a programme about it, you can be a bit overwhelmed by it and think: “There’s nothing I can do.” But I think because we’ve been doing things in small bite-size chunks and people can actually see the benefit from something directly and it maybe also costs them less money and it maybe keeps the house warmer, then ... it’s been easier to kind of get to grasp with the whole process of it I think. And it certainly ... you know, there’s a huge community input with what we’re doing at the minute which is great.

Simon:

And are there local signs of climate change that people have noticed?

     

Maggie:

Och, it’s hard to know really when the patterns are so unpredictable anyway but we’ve probably had ... we’ve had good weather in the summer, hotter weather in the summer, and we’ve certainly been getting colder winters for the last few years. I don’t know really entirely if that’s due to climate change or just general Scottish weather! (laughs)

Simon:

It sounds like, in many ways, that what you’re doing, even if climate change wasn’t the impetus, that what you’re doing is of benefit anyway?

     

Maggie:

I think so. It’s a benefit. I mean, just ... Like there were two Trust properties that hadn’t been renovated that some of the funding that we’ve had through this project ... we’ve put in insulated envelopes inside the houses basically and put new windows in. And that’s made a huge difference to the houses, to the fuel they use and what it’s costing them as well. So there’s benefits on different levels. If you see the cost of your heating dropping, that can only be a good thing on several different levels so I think that’s why folk have become more actively involved in it. But I think, just in general ... Actually it’s interesting, just aside ... When we were coming up to our tenth anniversary of owning the island, we decided to do a review of everything we’d done over that ten year period and what we should be thinking about for the future and just a few months ago we went back to that review. Obviously we produced an action plan at the end of the process and we went back to it just a few weeks or months ago ...

Simon:

You’ve just been saying about the general benefit, people’s bills getting lower and stuff like that. So do you think that communities like Eigg offer a viable model for how communities elsewhere could operate? Or is very much that ... How much does the island situation bring about the kind of cohesiveness ...?

     

Maggie:

I think that because we were a very defined community, that makes community ... and because we’re a relatively small amount of folk it makes it easier to communicate with one and other. So in that respect, yes, it is very defined so that makes it easier probably. But I mean folk are doing it in lots of other places already, Knoydart being the closest neighbour. We have quite a lot of contact with them as well. They’re doing lots of similar things so we have our comings and goings. Before we ever bought Eigg we met the folk from Assynt who’d bought the croft land before us, and, although that were a different situation, there was a lot they could teach us and help us with which was fantastic at the time. And then ... there are buy-outs going on all the time. A lot of woodlands are now community owned, that’s quite a big one. And buy-outs like West Harris is one and Barra ... Uist I mean, more recently. So yes, I do think it can be replicated. It’s not for everybody, without a doubt, and it’s an awful lot of hard work, without a doubt. I think if we calculated the amount of volunteer hours that go into actually keeping Eigg afloat we’d ... it’s pretty significant. But it’s just so much more worthwhile. It’s just like the electricity system, everybody’s incredibly proud of it and wants to make it work. You know, so you don’t have that same feeling for things if you’re doing it for somebody else. The fact that we’re doing it for ourselves ... more or less everything that happens here is our responsibility. It’s a bit weighty at times but, in the main, it’s a fantastic thing to be part of, I would say.

Simon:

Do you think it’s got long-term sustainability?

     

Maggie:

I do. I can only see it developing over the years really. I mean, it’s probably partly to do with living on an island and in a remote location that people who, the ones who make their lives here tend to be pretty resourceful and can turn their hands to a lot of different things. So, you know, different ideas come up. Different businesses have been set up, not just ... The Trust has set up some things but once people have got security they’re going to set up something for themselves as well. So there’s been lots of different things that have evolved over the last thirteen years and I can see that carrying on. And some of our young folk have come back here to live and start families, which is always a really encouraging sign for the future, and some of them are getting more involved in what happens here, in how the island’s run which, again, is pretty important for the future because people like me are not going to last forever! (laughs) I’m probably going to get tired quite soon and ... maybe not quite soon yet but anyway. But, I think as long as we can encourage people to come and live here and young people to stay then, yes, to that question, I would say.

Simon:

And do you think the kind of ... You were saying there’s quite a lot of voluntary work involved in making it all work. Do you think that will keep going as well because that’s often where some people see the vulnerability. What’s a mission for the first set of volunteers becomes ...

     

Maggie:

Yeah, yeah. I don’t ... well there’s certainly no sign of it yet. I think we’ve got a good system on the Trust itself. Anybody that’s an Eigg director, they stand for a term of four years but we’ve managed to set it up so that one person is resigning their position ... we only ever lose one person every year, so a new person comes on board. And the directors are elected by the community, should there be several people still standing for that one position! But it means there’s a good turnover. People are not stuck there forever. The same goes with ... all the subsidiary companies have all got a board of directors as well. So that ... there is a turnover of people. Again, it’s a lot to do with confidence. If you’re somebody that’s grown up here and seen your parents being mightily involved in something, you’re maybe not going to jump in there straight away or feel like your thoughts are important but it comes eventually by being involved in maybe something like ... a lot of the young people here are involved in the events committee, for instance. You know, we run a programme of arts events here over the year. So that’s something you can start off with and then maybe feel a bit more confident that you might just want to be a part of some other different aspect of what goes on here. And confidence grows, and I see more and more younger people getting involved in more things now, which is great.

Simon:

That’s good. So you’re not an aging community? It sounds like you’re quite ...

     

Maggie:

There are quite a few of us that are aging! (laughs)

     

Simon:

But it sounds like there’s ...

     

Maggie:

But, I think there’s quite a few of us that came here thirty odd year ago that have actually got children who have opted to move back here and have their own families so ... you know, they’ve ... And when folk move in here too, it’s amazing how somebody can come from a completely different background but really enjoy the fact that people do things together and take part in things. And it’s a great place to bring up kids. So I think as long as people are integrated into the community easy enough if they do move here, then I think we’ve got ... We’ll have to keep working at it. I’m not saying it’s all perfect and nae worries but I think the community’s got enough energy in it that it will keep attracting new people, and those people will be the ones looking after it after me! (laughs)