• Neil Robertson
Location:
Eigg
Date:
Thursday 4th February 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/002

Simon:

How did you come to be on Eigg?

     

Neil:

Well, I’m a trained gardener and I had worked in various places including a small island down in the Clyde which I really loved, but it was a private island, just the two owners, myself and my wife at the time and, after a couple of years, it got a bit insular. So I knew I liked that life but I wanted more of a community, more people around me, and my sister was living in Aberdeen at the time, and she saw an advert in the paper for a gardener for a “small, idyllic Hebridean island,” I think that’s what it said, no name or anything. And I phoned up and it was one of the previous owners, Schellenberg, who was looking for a gardener and I applied and I got the job, so that was that. I came over here and I’ve stayed ever since.

 

When I came there was a builder and there was myself, to begin with. The estate had been run down and then ... It’s a long story but Schellenberg had almost re-bought the island, he had bought out his wife’s half so, in his head, it was a new start and he was going to build up a workforce and do amazing things, none of which actually happened but ... So I came over. There was two of us working on the estate and then a shepherd came in and there was a guy who had been a fisherman who started working doing odd jobs and things like that, so there was really four of us towards the end of it. It worked fine but it was always crisis management, it was always ... the amount of gardening I did varied depending on what crisis there was, what house was falling down or needing stuff done to it or ... so in some ways it was good cos it was different all the time and in other ways it was infuriating because you could never get anything done that you needed to.

Simon:

And were you living up this end of the island at that time or did you ...?

     

Neil:

No! It was ... Most of the estate houses were over the other side so I stayed in Sandavore Farmhouse, Sandavore Bothy, Cardin Cottage, Gamekeeper’s ... You sort of moved around a lot in those days depending what was better. They were all bad but there was various stages of bad. So when someone moved out and something was a bit better than where you were, you moved into that. And then I ended up in Cardin Cottage, I was the last person living there as a house. It’s now being used as volunteer accommodation up till recently. But I think it’s even been decided it’s too poor for that now and is going to get knocked down. Hopefully something will be built.

Simon:

And I take it you got to know the local community during that time?

     

Neil:

Yeah, I did very well. Not always on good terms because of the politics of the place. I had no idea about the politics of Eigg before I came here. There was no reason why I should have. But I and the other guys on the estate were working for someone that most of the people on the island hated and wanted rid of. And because he wasn’t here all the time and we were, we were looked upon, perhaps rightly, as propping up a system that they wanted rid of. So it wasn’t always an easy ... Luckily, a lot of the people at the time who were on Eigg had been through what we went through. A lot of people came to work for Schellenberg and then either fell out with him or managed to get a toehold or foothold in somewhere and stay on. So they didn’t personally blame us for it, but there were times when there was heated exchanges and it wasn’t always nice, but the people were good and when it all changed it worked brilliantly for me, you know?

Simon:

So at some point you joined the community ...

     

Neil:

Well, I think I worked for Schelly for two years before he sold, and I’d worked on estates before, and I’d worked for private landowners and things like that, but the two years I worked for him ... it became obvious fairly quickly that 90% of what he said he was going to do was never going to happen, if not 99%. He wasn’t good for the island. He wasn’t good for the community, or the land or the houses or the infrastructure or anything, so when he sold, he sold to a German guy called Maruma who ... No-one’s really quite sure why he bought it. He was here twice for a few days in ... I think it was eighteen months he had the place for, and he turned up for two days, and then at some point later for three days, and that was it. He had these great plans he kept coming up with, none of it happened. Never spent any money. We didn’t get our wages for months on end and then some of the wages would turn up ... it was just a complete mess. By then anyway I was convinced that Eigg had to become independent if it was going to continue as anything more than a rich man’s plaything. So it was quite good because, towards the end, there was two of us left on the estate and I was employed by the selling agents to take round prospective buyers of Eigg to show them the place. I used to take them to people like Maggie so they knew exactly what the score was, that if they bought it they’d be buying it against the community’s wishes, because this wasn’t the story they were being told by the selling agents, surprisingly enough, who wanted to sell it. Yeah, so things like that I couldn’t ... I tried to do my bit. I was fine with everyone else before the buy-out. I was involved in that. One thing the buy-out did was I lost my job, you know? Luckily by then I’d managed to get the tenancy of the croft so although I had no money I had lots of time and in Eigg often you end up with either time or money but not both.

Simon:

So how did you come to get the croft?

     

Neil:

Well, it was ... I mean, crofts don’t or didn’t come up on Eigg very often. The old guy who had had this croft, he had died quite a few years ... not that many years before I came but a few years before and one of the guys on the estate actually, the builder, he had got the tenancy of it. When Schellenberg sold, him and his wife left to go and work with him down in Kintyre, I think it was, and I knew it was going to happen and I spoke to him and I got the tenancy from him, so I was just in the right place at the right time.

Simon:

And do you have animals as part of your croft?

     

Neil:

Yeah!

     

Simon:

I’m just, cos that’s ... As a gardener you wouldn’t necessarily deal with livestock.

     

Neil:

No. I’d had chickens before and had rabbits before for meat and I’d helped occasionally with sheep but I really, you’re right, I didn’t have much experience. A great thing about the communal aspect of crofting is that hopefully you’ll be in a situation like I was, like I didn’t have a lot of experience, but there were people around me that did and the first cow that I actually bought, I bought with Wes, Maggie’s husband, because he ... We bought it from Muck and it was a half milk, half beef cow, the theory being that you have beef calves to sell and lots of milk. Worked a bit, you know. But Wes, he has milked cows in Ireland, hand milked you know? No problem at all but he didn’t want the hassle of doing it every day. I didn’t mind the hassle of doing it every day, but I had no idea what I was doing. So we bought it between us and it worked really well. And, you know, she was an old beast of a cow and she kept doing everything possible but Wes could milk her really well, and I never really got that great at it! (laughs) But I did get there. And just ... I don’t think having something like a cow is something that I’d have gone into completely on my own but in the environment you are and the community you’ve got around you ... And now we’ve got ... well we’ve actually got seven. We’ve got two of a woman’s along the road who’s away for a couple of years. We’re looking after them until she decides what she’s going to do, so yeah, we’ve got cows, we’ve got chickens, ducks ... we’ve had pigs before. You know, that sort of thing. None of the crofters on Eigg have got sheep apart from one. One guy’s got half a dozen Shetland sheep and it’s just an old ... not really an old tradition, but the story I heard anyway was, let’s say a hundred years ago, the crofters wanted a larger area of common grazing from the estate and the estate, at that time, was accusing the crofters of stealing their sheep. So the agreement was that the crofters on Eigg wouldn’t have sheep apart from you were allowed two sheep for your own consumption, which had to be tethered like goats, and that meant the estate gave up this land for the common grazing. And, in fact, up until very recently while more of the old people were still around, they were very much against crofters getting sheep still on Eigg: “Oh no, you can’t do that.” This was like history but to them it was part of the whole thing and they were very much against it. Now ... I mean Peggy’s probably the oldest person on Eigg who can remember ... well Katie and Peggy, who can remember how the crofting used to be and both of them have said to the youngsters: “Do what you want to do!” Well, they call me a youngster but ... “If you want to get sheep, get sheep.” And we have talked about it and eventually I suppose it will happen but ...

Simon:

Cos the sheep that we’ve seen are the ones that are on the small holdings ... cos there’s sheep down ... like we went down Kildonnan and there’s sheep outside the old shop.

     

Neil:

Aye, well that’s all Colin’s sheep from the farm, at Kildonnan Farm. There’s Kildonnan Farm, there’s Camusdale or Sandavore Farm which is Duncan’s out the Sgurr, out that way, and then there’s Laig Farm down at the end of the beach which George has got. And they’ve all got sheep. But, as I say, there’s only one crofter. From basically at the cattle grid at the forestry to the north end and a bit of the way up the hill, there shouldn’t be sheep. There are sheep, obviously, cos sheep get everywhere, but there shouldn’t be sheep.

Simon:

So is that the grazings then?

     

Neil:

Emm ... Up ... Yes. I mean there’s two crofting townships on Eigg. There’s Cuagach, which is what Maggie and Wes are in, and there’s Cleadale which is what we are in. There’s no real differentiation. There’s a wall. If you know what you’re looking at, there’s a wall between the two of them. So the Cuagach common grazings are at the top of the hill ... (inaudible) ... and our common grazings are north of the croft.

Simon:

Is that the area past the beach and ...?

     

Neil:

Yeah, yep.

     

Simon:

And you’re the current Grazings Clerk?

     

Neil:

That’s right, yes.

     

Simon:

How long have you been in that role?

     

Neil:

It must be four or five years now. Yeah, probably getting nearer five years. I mean it’s ... We have had various projects. You know, we’ve got new cattle handling facilities, new callipers, new pens, tracks through them ... Because the old system was all falling apart and actually it was on someone else’s croft, the Renbye croft and that person died and you’ve got no ... the crofters had no say over what happened to it or anything and it was falling apart so we’ve done a lot of work recently, in the last few years, to really try and upgrade the ... certainly the cattle facilities. And it’s worked, it’s been really good. Now we can actually load livestock on this side onto a trailer and transport it over to the pier whereas, before, everything had to have got driven over ... even bulls and things like that. They’d come off the boat and we’d lead them over. Sometimes that went well, sometimes it didn’t, depending on the bull and the mood.

Simon:

So what’s your ... For someone who doesn’t know what a Grazings Clerk is, could you explain what’s involved?

     

Neil:

Well in theory, it’s a secretary or ... you have a Grazings Committee where the crofters appoint a committee and on Eigg, because Eigg is ... well, on Cleadale anyway, because it’s such a small number of working crofters, all the working crofters make up the Grazings Committee. So I think there’s five of us and obviously you have a chairman, you have a treasurer, theoretically, and you have the clerk, the secretary. So I deal with the paperwork and grant applications or anything like that but you also end up being the person who, when the cows are going to market, everyone expects you to be the one that phones up and books them all in and make sure it’s alright and that’s actually nothing to do with the common grazing, obviously, but you do end up taking on that role and it just makes life easier. Every now and again you think: “No, no, hold on, somebody else can do that this time,” or whatever but oh no, on the whole you do it and you learn how everything works. But yeah, it’s not a lot of work but there are periods where you are dealing with the Crofters Commission, you’re dealing with SERAD (Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department), the Agricultural Department, and SNH (Scottish National Heritage), Historic Scotland, I’ve had to deal with ... and there’s times when you’re just pulling your hair out, you know? And things can take months. You have to remotivate yourself each time. You know, when we were doing the new track out past Holen and it goes through an area, a scheduled monument, which is the old field system and the old ruined blackhouses, what they call the Five Pennies, and I was dealing with Historic Scotland and the guy I dealt with was very nice and very good and very helpful but they are just so slow! So you start with this idea that we’ll start off with this track and hopefully we’ll be finished in three months or two months and a year later you’re just about got the permission through to actually start it. So yeah, it can be infuriating and it can be banging your head against a brick wall, and I think people tend to do it for five or six years at the most and then they say: “Hopefully somebody new comes in that’s really keen and motivated,” and you can pass it off to them and after a few years, and they’re ground down, then maybe somebody that’s done it before takes it back on or whatever.

Simon:

Do you have to deal with souming and stuff or is there just not enough ...?

     

Neil:

We do, we do. We don’t make a big thing of it because it isn’t a problem. It’s ... There is a souming for each croft and about three or four years ago we did a croft re-organisation and part of that was an increase in the common grazing ground. I mean, it more or less doubled, so we have now got ... cos Cleadale common grazing was one of the smallest in all the crofting areas which worked because there was always a small number of cows. But we were hoping, and still are, that the number of cows will build up so we don’t insist that someone sticks to ... I think most of the soumings are about five cows but if someone’s got seven and there’s loads of grazing, it doesn’t matter. They’re sending more animals to market, they’re paying for the bull ... It just keeps the turnover better. If every croft had five, we’d be too tight, it probably wouldn’t work. So we’re just flexible with it. If we ever do get loads of crofters with cows then, you know, we have to harden the whole thing up, but at the moment it’s not a problem. We’ve got a grazing and it’s no big deal.

Simon:

So how did the ... do you know how many total crofts there are and how many are active?

     

Neil:

In Cleadale there’s ... is it seventeen now? I think it’s seventeen. I don’t really deal with the Cuagach ones, although there’s obviously a bit of overlap. But I think in Cleadale and there’ll be five active. There is the one woman, as I say, she’s gone down south for a couple of years and I think ... Well, it’s up to her whether she comes back or no, I don’t know. It’s her personal stuff that’s ... She sublet it. She did it the proper way, if you like, so that basically after the two years is up she has to make her decision. So there’s five active crofts, there was six, but there should be more. It’s still very fragile and there are times when one person’s away on holiday, one person’s no well, somebody’s working and you’ve got to go and do something and you’re down to the two of you and you think: “Well if anything goes wrong here ...” You know, rounding up the cows and bringing them in cos there’s an inspection or something, and it makes you realise that having a larger pool of active people would definitely help. And we’ve tried, we’ve tried really hard. It’s a difficult one. You know, with the croft reorganisation it didn’t ... I don’t think it worked. It didn’t work out the way that we hoped. We hoped to encourage in a lot of active youngish crofters, with families potentially, and it didn’t really happen like that and I think now, out of the four that were created, one is sublet, one is being worked, one it’s a local guy that’s got it and he’s working away more and more and more now and we’re not ... we just need to nail down where that one’s going. And one’s an absentee so ...

Simon:

So how many of the currently active crofters are newcomers like yourself and how many are ...? Are there any part of the original Eigg crofting families?

     

Neil:

Yeah. Alistair, he’s ... his family go back down to Laig, I don’t know, for four or five generations or something like that.

     

Simon:

Is that Peggy’s son?

     

Neil:

Yes. And then Bob, he’s got one. Although he’s not originally from here, he’s came over as a shepherd shortly after I did, and he’s from Kintyre so he’s from that sort of working type of stuff. Kathleen, who’s got one on the north end, her granny is Kate who’s the oldest inhabitant of Eigg and lives on the croft just down the road there, so yeah, there’s still that in there. And Angus, who’s working away. That’s Alistair’s brother so there’s two of the Kirks. So yeah, it’s still there. And it’s good to have the mix as well and I think the people who were born and brought up on Eigg if you like, or have close connections to Eigg, are the ones who feel it’s important to keep the traditions going more than people coming in. I mean, I do as well, and sometimes you think: “Why have I got cows? Why am I doing this?” (laughs) It’s like ... but I don’t know, there’s just something about it. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the right way to do it, and I think that’s maybe more inbred in someone that’s been born and brought up in it than someone coming in. It’s just the way I feel as well, it just happens to be me, but a lot of people will come in and think: “Hmm ...” And I know areas on Skye and places like that where you will get people buying crofts or even becoming tenants and they just plant trees on it and sit there and there’s no communal stuff, there’s no ... And you think that if everybody does that, it’s just small holdings isn’t it? There’s no life left to it, it’s just everybody’s own little bit, and that’s not really what we’ve got here. We have got a shared communal system that does run, not as well as it should and not with as many people as it should, but it does.

Simon:

And do you ... talking about the communal aspect in terms of like ... well, firstly, do you all take cattle to market and ...?

     

Neil:

Yep. There’s a lorry that comes over. You know, we basically decide what’s going to be ... Everybody’s got their own ... although there’s a communal aspect, everybody’s also very fiercely independent in what they are doing and so basically we decide what sale we’re going to go for. Usually we miss that one because of storms. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll see: “Oh look, there’s a decent sale on September 22nd, we can get the boat on September 21st,” and there’ll be a big storm and you’ve got to re-do everything. But yeah, I’ve got three calves to sell and he’s got two and there’s an old cow going off and we’ll book the lorry and we usually don’t manage to fill it but one of the farmers will often have ... you know, we’ll say: “There’s room for another three beasts,” or whatever and it’s very rare that a lorry goes away from Eigg and it’s not full; it goes to the market. And then one or two people go off with them and sell them. It doesn’t mean everybody has to be there. If you want to go then fine, but if you cannae get away and you were there last year and really don’t fancy it, somebody else will put it in the ring for you, it’s not a big deal.

Simon:

Do you sell as a cooperative or do you all sell as individuals?

     

Neil:

We don’t, we sell as individuals. We are talking about ... we’ve done things in the past like ... I suppose we still have but we had a machinery ring for hay, spits out the hay machinery. I say we don’t really have it anymore, but that’s because all the machinery becomes so knackered that I don’t think any of it works anymore so we tend to just ask the farmer if he can come along and cut it and bale it and ... But we are talking about starting that sort of thing up again and it’s ... We’re talking about maybe trying to get ... Because the crofts, certainly my croft and a lot of the ones up the back, they’re hilly. They have little fields in them but they are little fields and it’s really difficult to get a tractor up there so cutting hay can be a bit of a nightmare and what we’ve been discussing, and I think we’ll probably go down this line, is we’ve got a much bigger common grazing now than we used to have and we’ve got good ground over there that we should actually go for an area of improvement on that, fence it off from the stock and actually improve it and grow hay communally. It obviously takes a bit more working out. You know, who does what work and how much everybody needs, but it makes sense. I mean at the moment, there’s silage made because we don’t have the hay machinery at the moment. There is a bit of silage made by the farmers for the crofters but there’s still a lot of hay gets bought in every year which wasn’t like when ... you know. I’ve had the croft about what, ten years? Might be twelve years by now. And most people then did their own hay. It wasn’t easy and you were pecking about here and there and getting this wee bit in and that wee bit in which is why people gave it up, but most people did make most of their own fodder and now I wouldn’t say they do.

Simon:

I found that over in Staffin people talked about that quite a lot. It was quite an important change that happened in people’s eyes.

     

Neil:

Yeah.

     

Simon:

And often one problem is that a lot of the croft land isn’t really capable ... almost like you were saying with the hills, it isn’t really capable of taking a tractor, so unless you’ve got enough people to do ... like they used to do with scythes or ...

     

Neil:

Yeah, I know, I know.

     

Simon:

But that takes a lot of people to really be ...

     

Neil:

It does. I mean, our bottom field is very boggy and it’s clay over peat or peat over clay depending on which bit you’re in. And I think we ... It was all rushes when I got the croft and I did get it back in to producing hay, but almost every year we’d either bog a tractor or, there was one year, we bogged a baler down and we couldn’t move it and the tractor got bogged and we were carrying the hay to the baler and throwing it into the bailer and ... you know, it’s things that happen but it’s the way ... not the way things were done before but they’ve got ... and everybody was there. There was probably ten folk there, all getting involved in it and, as I say, even with the silage that’ll still happen. But life is busier now and people ... You can’t do that year after year and expect people to turn up and help you, you know. They’ll help you because: “Oh no, my baler’s stuck and how am I going to get my hay and it’s going to rain tomorrow cos it’s always going to rain tomorrow when your baler ...” But you can’t expect that every year and eventually ... I mean we’ve bought in most of our hay this year. We grow kale up the top and stuff like that, but most of it was probably bought in this year. And I’d like to get back to making the most of it, but I do think you need to do it on a bigger scale, which means it’s got to be communal.

Simon:

Would it make a big economic difference then? Because it seems to be ... again just thinking of the people I spoke to on Staffin, one of their biggest costs was having to buy in hay, buy in fertilisers ... All the stuff they had to buy in which a generation or so ago would’ve all been locally produced.

     

Neil:

Yeah. And I think what’s made a difference with people’s thinking on that one is the schemes, like the Rural Stewardship Scheme which a lot of people on Eigg, including myself, were in. It’s just finished for most people this year and you get grants for looking after the land. My bottom field is the perfect example. I no longer grow hay on that. When the advisor came over to talk to us about the Rural Stewardship Scheme, I said to her at the time, six years ago: “I worked out I get about £600 worth of very poor quality hay from that field. If you can get me grants, I can buy decent hay and I can look after it as a bog or a wetland because that’s what the ground wants to be!” I was fighting it every year to stop it being a bog because that’s what it is really. And she said: “Yeah, that’s no problem!” And that’s ... I think everybody is now on those schemes, well most people, and that’s skewed it a bit. I know there’s supposed to be environmental schemes and they’re supposed to get people working the land again but in fact it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you can get the money for doing different things and maybe not doing what’s ... maybe not best for the environment but what’s best for the community. It’s ... When they used to use horses, my bottom field was fine because horses don’t get bogged down that easily and they know where the ditches are, they step over them. When tractors came in, then it became: “Oh that field, it’s not really worth it ...” you know?

Simon:

So where do you see the stuff like that fitting in with the Big Green Challenge? One of the distinctive things about Eigg is that it’s taken that environmental aspect very seriously and put it into play. From what I can get from Maggie, it’s a mixture of a desire to be environmental but also a necessity in some cases. I’m thinking of the electricity. There it’s as much a necessity as it was a desire.

     

Neil:

Yep. I think, from my own personal point of view, and most people’s point of view, being as self-sufficient as you can in almost everything, or as much as you can, should I say, is not only the right way to go but it’s the cheapest way to go and often ... Well it’s not always the right way to go but things like growing hay here, it can be done because it was done years ago and the weather hasn’t changed that much. The machinery’s here or can be here. You know, we need a bit more working out. We need a lot of fencing, we need a lot of planning. But our hay at the moment is coming from the East Coast, it’s coming from Aberdeenshire and Perth and it has to be a bit more environmentally sound. We’re not talking organic hay either that we’re buying in or we’re gonna grow. I’d love it to be organic. I mean, this croft is organic but there’s lots of people that aren’t and if there’s a communal purchase, there will be more people who’re not organic than are and therefore they will win out, which is fine, and I’ll still be buying non-organic hay because A: I couldn’t afford organic and B: I won’t get it. So it has to be more environmentally sound to do things yourself, I think. It’s the same with growing ... We’ve talked about trying to finish off cattle ourself but the regulations are very complicated, if not impossible, for somewhere like here. So I think the best we can do is become as self-sufficient as we can in the crofts, both for food for people, for the crofters and for the island as a whole, and for the cattle and the stuff we are producing, you know, the animals that we’re sending to market. So I’m hopeful that will happen. It may be pure economics that make it happen but also, you’re right. There is a lot of feeling of being ... even people who, I think, before we started the Green Challenge, you wouldn’t have said were that environmentally conscious became much more so during the whole process of the Challenge and it became like a competition. Well, it was a competition I suppose but, you know, somebody would do something or say ... somebody would leave their car or van running outside the shop and then somebody would go in and see that they were sitting there with a cup of coffee and see that they’d been there for ten minutes and say: “Hoy, you should go out there and turn that off!” and often the reason was that it didn’t start again and needed a hill but, you know, people would mention. Because before folk wouldn’t.

Simon:

And does anyone raise livestock for feeding their families or is the ...? Because I know there’s costs involved in taking that through to slaughter so does that ...?

     

Neil:

I’m not sure what the legal stuff all is. I mean certainly sheep, I think we are still allowed to kill for our own consumption. We’ve done pigs before and I know sheep have been done on Eigg before, and I think it changes and nobody likes to ask too many questions or get too involved because you’re never quite sure where it’s at. I mean, to my mind if you’ve got your own sheep and you want to kill it to feed yourself ... but now all sheep are individually numbered and stuff like that so it may be that it’s more complicated than my simplistic thing there. I don’t know that I’d fancy killing a cow right enough. I’d never fit it in my freezer. But we should do, you know? There is meat imported to Eigg every week from the mainland. I think on Muck they send stuff off to Tobermory, or to Mull anyway. There’s a slaughterhouse there and a butcher and we half talked about that, about taking a trailer of livestock, of animals, beasts, and I think that may happen. We certainly ... people want to use locally produced stuff. People will buy Muck beef because you can’t buy Eigg beef because you can’t legally do it. So they’ll buy Muck beef before they’ll buy anything from the mainland. You buy venison from Rum. We just aren’t there in any way or we haven’t found a way of coping or dealing with it well at the moment and I think we should. More and more people are talking about it so hopefully, again, it is something that will come.

Simon:

I don’t know much about this in detail but when I started working on this there was the whole thing about Shucksmith Report and the changes to crofting regulations. Has that stuff come in or ...?

     

Neil:

I lost the plot with that. No, I don’t know if it did in the end. I think there was so much negative feedback. Honestly I don’t know. I did get involved in the beginning and I did get sent folders and folders and folders of stuff that I just stopped reading because I just didn’t have the time! I said to all the other crofters: “I’ve got all this stuff, if anybody wants a look at it, it’s there,” and nobody else did. And I can’t even remember the whole ... you know, the points that came out in the end I can’t remember. But it’s changed ... I mean the crofting stuff, the right to buy and all that, it’s one thing that we’re arguing from an Eigg point of view and not only from an Eigg point of view. I think there’s more and more communities owning their estates and land and whatever. The right to buy was brought in, this was my feeling and several other people on Eigg’s feeling ... a lot of the reason it was brought in was to protect the crofters from poor landlords. You know, going back to Schellenberg, he was the typical landlord who would ... he wouldn’t actively ... he wouldn’t often actively obstruct someone from doing something but just from doing nothing he could obstruct it and the right to buy was given to the crofters partly to allow them to overcome that: “I’ve got these plans, I want to do this, I want to do that and I can’t do it because basically my landlord won’t agree or won’t sign something or disagrees.” But when you get into a community owned crofting estate or township or whatever, the individual exerting their right to buy is taking away an asset from the whole community and we actually came out with a policy a while back that said ... We did put a proviso in there that unless they could prove an extremely valid agricultural reason that they had to buy it ... We couldn’t think of any but, you know, crofting is agriculture and if someone said: “I need to put up this shed and I can only get this shed ...” or whatever, you know? And it was a really good reason for a business and they needed to buy it and it was an agricultural thing, then that’s fine. But if someone just wanted to buy it because they wanted to flog it off for house plots, well, that is someone stripping the assets of the community for their own gain and I, and a lot of other people, don’t think that’s right. But up until recently, I don’t know if it’s still exactly the same, you had a right to buy. You know, there was a legal right to buy and it was very difficult to fight. We have fought it and we’ve not won but we’ve not lost either. You know, it sort of comes and goes and you think it’s all died a death and then it springs up again!

Simon:

So you’re a tenant yourself then?

     

Neil:

Aye, aye.

     

Simon:

And your landlord effectively is the community, it’s the Trust?

     

Neil:

Yes, yes. And I’ve got absolutely no problem with that. I don’t think... They raised the rent but I think it was last raised in something like 1892 so it probably needed raised. The fact that it got raised by about 400% because it was ... (laughs) But there was a few grumbles about that and I did say: “Well, £5 a hectare, I don’t know that you can complain too much,” so yep, they’re my landlords, yes.

Simon:

Is the forestry work, is that something ...? It might exist ... It certainly doesn’t exist on Staffin because there’s no forests. But Eigg is quite a green island comparatively for it’s size and the forestry is quite an important part of the economy. Is that for the internal economy, in terms of supplying fuel and stuff ...?

     

Neil:

Yes, it is because it was a plantation that was put in, in the late 70s, early 80s, when the government was throwing money at the landowners to blanket forest Scotland and a lot of it is very, very poor quality. It was planted there because they got the money to plant it there, not because it’s good ground. Some of it’s good. There are areas that are good within it but the economics of removing what, at best, is a mediocre wood crop from Eigg, unless things change drastically, it’s never going to work. It’s never going to be worth it. So we’re looking on it as an internal commodity, an internal use thing, and we have just started up ... Up until now we have done a lot of environmental felling which has been funded often by the Forestry Commission but through other funding bodies as well because, when they did plant it up, they planted right down to the burns and through all the bogs and dammed the bogs or drained the bogs and, you know, we’re doing the opposite. They got money to do that and we’re getting money to do the opposite. But what we’ve just started this year is trying to deal with it as a firewood resource because, in reality, that’s what most of it would be. There are some bits that are maybe too good for that and we’ll try and get a different ... you know, building or whatever and we’re looking into Wood-Mizer sawmills (portable sawmills) and things like that, but what we’re concentrating on at the moment is actually a firewood resource. So we’ve had a feasibility study of the whole ... you know, from what trees we’ve got to how many people, to what they’re burning, to how they’re burning it, to heating systems and ... the whole lot. We’ve just had a feasibility study, we’ve had a draft of it through recently. We read it and made notes and sent it back to them so they can come up with a final copy. And we went away, myself and Alistair and Dean and Bernie, went away and visited a few places down Ardnamurchan and places like that who were doing it. There are very, very few places. In fact, they did say that Eigg was going to be the only place they could think of in Scotland where people were going in and harvesting wood with chainsaws because it just doesn’t happen anymore. The big harvester comes in and ... and, actually, I haven’t been in there for a couple of weeks, I can see why it’s a killer! (laughs) But it’s the way ... We did look at every option. Are we better sitting on it for twenty years and doing almost nothing and then getting a harvester in? But then you get no local employment and ... you know, so all these things. Hopefully this is going to pay for itself and you will get a local resource. You will get local employment. Very few, well, not food miles but transport ... And more people will start burning wood because what we need is a reliable source and we’ve got plenty of it there, but we need a system that works. That’s the stage we’re at. We’re trying to find that out at the moment. I think that one is a definite goer. What it needs to do is pay enough money for people like myself who are in there working because it’s ... you know, you’re self-employed, you’ve got all your gear, you’ve got your breakdowns, you’ve got all your fuel ... and when we’ve done it before on a much more ad hoc basis, it hasn’t really paid for itself. If we charged people what we felt we needed to cover our costs and make a wage, they wouldn’t have bought their wood because coal was more expensive but you got a lot more heat out of it. But that was one of the reasons for this feasibility study, to come up with systems of extraction, which has been one of our biggest problems, is accessing extraction, and so this ... you know, we’ve been to the experts. This is what they’ve come up with. We’re trying it now. We’ll sell that wood next year in the autumn and that’ll tell us if it’s going to work or not, and I really hope it does because it’s a perfect example of a community ... like a communal, community, local business supplying local needs and being greener and more environmentally friendly and so it just sounds great and I hope the costs do figure themselves out.

Simon:

So basically the wood’s owned by the community trust?

     

Neil:

Yes.

     

Simon:

So it belongs to the community. But you’ll effectively have a private business that’s ... so is it just the Trust that farms it or ...?

     

Neil:

Well, we’ve still got to work all that out. At the moment it’s just four self-employed guys going in there and felling it, but we will have to set up a business and it’s how we do that, whether it’s a cooperative or whatever, and that business would then buy the wood from the Trust, like you would commercially, although hopefully at a much reduced rate. And they would be responsible for all the processing and deliver it and everything like that. It ... You have Eigg Electric, Eigg Construction. They are subsidiaries of the Trust. Whether this would be a subsidiary or not is being debated at the moment. Whether it would be a standalone small company ... we’re not sure yet. Again, this final feasibility study that comes back. Hopefully ... That was one of the aspects that they were going to be looking at and hopefully gonna come up with some proposals for us.

Simon:

So at the moment it’s more like an old fashioned common woodland and you just happen to be the guys that have the tools ...?

     

Neil:

Yes. We’ve got the training and the tools and so on.

     

Simon:

And do you plan to stay with pine? Is that the most ...?

     

Neil:

No, no! We’re hoping ...

     

Simon:

Coppicing or … ?

     

Neil:

Yep. I mean, what we’re hoping ... the bit we’re doing this year, we’re felling this year, is on fairly good ground. Access is quite reasonable, it’s quite dry and the ground is quite fertile, so what we’re planning to do again is replant that. We’re looking at various options for that as well. Almost definitely that, but it would not be more Sitka Spruce because it’s very close to the road, it’s very ... We’d probably go for ... well a lot of people now are doing Ash. Ash stands very close together. I don’t think ... it’s not going to look natural because the way you grow these things nowadays, but it’ll look a lot better than the ones that are there. So the replanting has to come in because the calculations give us ... I think it’s twenty-five to thirty-years of firewood just from that plantation. Well, now’s the time to start replanting then because certainly things like the coppice and the Ash wood, you’re twelve, fifteen, maybe twenty years before you’re dropping them. So it’s ideal timing but we’d need to have the whole planned system running.

Simon:

I guess it’s like ... For fuel, Spruce is not a very cost effective way of doing it.

     

Neil:

It’s not the best way.

     

Simon:

You have to chop the whole tree down don’t you?

     

Neil:

Yes. And it’s not a very environmentally great species to have around. Native species are better. There’s some Larch in there which is slightly better than Spruce because the needles fall off and you get a bit of vegetation on the ground and it’s better wood. But yeah, the woodland is looked after, if you like, by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, so not that we want to do anything that was damaging to the environment ... we wouldn’t be allowed to anyway. If we said: “There’s this Chinese Willow that grows forty feet in one year, unfortunately it’s very invasive but it’s great!” We wouldn’t do it, we couldn’t do that. So we’d be working in conjunction with them and with the latest commercial ideas of wood ... you know, of what to grow for firewood. Because it is changing. For a while it was all bio fuel and Willow and it’s going from that now to more thicker stuff rather than harvesting acres and acres of thin, willowy stuff. But yeah, we’re going to do that. We have to do that. There’s no point in going in there and having this plan to fell all the wood and use it all and then in twenty-five years think: “Aww.” The electricity’s the same. We designed a system, we designed a pricing ... which obviously you have to look at because this area it’s brand new, you’ve no idea how it’s really going to work. So in twenty to twenty-five years time we can replace the whole system because again there’s no point in getting fifteen years down the road and saying: “Oh well, that’s another windmill blown down!” You know? It’s tough. We have to be able to be sustaining and keep things going.

Simon:

Would you think ...? There’s some people ... I think Jim Hunter has made this claim, that crofts can represent a model of how a more sustainable form of environmental use can actually work. Do you think, in some small way, Eigg is any proof of that or is that too big a claim to make?

     

Neil:

I think it depends on the individual but I know where he’s coming from. I can see his point. I mean, on Eigg we have all sorts of individuals, as they do on most crofting areas but ... I think, yeah, I think he’s right but not 100% right or it doesn’t always work 100% right everywhere because nothing does. There’s crofts ... I mean for a start if that was true then all the crofts would be full and thriving but they’re not. It’s a constant fight and it’s a constant fight against people who sometimes are absentees who don’t live here and put nothing into the system but hold on to it like hell. I can understand indigenous people doing that. An old family croft and ... I don’t agree with it but I can understand it. But land is a funny thing and if you give someone a bit of land, even if they’re a tenant, and then they disappear and four or five years later you’re thinking: “Hold on, they said they were away for a couple of years and have never come back!” They will fight tooth and nail and you think ... Eigg is a strange land. The hold it has on people or the effect it has on people can be really quite weird. I mean I find that myself. Although I’ve been a gardener all my life, I’ve always worked for other people, and I got the croft and I do remember at one point thinking: “I can do whatever I want here!” Of course you can’t and you think: “Why did I think that? I don’t think that way!” but it goes through your head: “It’s mine! This is mine!” (laughs) Sort of Wild Western: “I’m going to shoot anybody that comes on it.” It’s really strange. And people get very ... And crofters are, I’ve said this before, are fiercely independent and they will die for their right to use their land the way they want. And it’s why sometimes changes can be quite difficult ... (inaudible) ... Department, just tear our hair out, you know? I mean, old Angus down the road, he’s dead now, but when they came over and said: “Where’s your record book for your cows Angus?” and he said: “Oh no, I don’t have one of them, no, no.” And they said: “Oh, you’ve got to have one now, it’s the law you must have one! For instance, what if we asked you, what day did you send your cows to market last year? You’d have to be able to tell us.” “Aye, I could,” he said. “When was it then?” And he said: “I’ll just ask one of them!” (laughs) And it’s like: “No, you can’t do that!” And it’s just ... So getting people to change sometimes is just difficult but it happens.

Simon:

You’re kind of laying plans with a twenty and thirty year fruition period or turnaround. Do you think that’s realistic? Do you think it’s going to sustain?

     

Neil:

I don’t know. I don’t know. A lot of crofting is, I think, is ... or agricultural aspects of crofting rather than the communal stuff like that, a lot of that is based on subsidy, it’s based on grants. These are the things that prop it up and keep it going. You know, that’s why we’re in the ... we get money from the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme because we’re a crap area for doing anything! It’s almost ... or a more difficult area, let’s put it that way. So these things, they do artificially sustain it. I know in New Zealand they withdrew the subsidy overnight and every small farmer went to the wall and the big ones took over for a while. I think it changed a bit after that and so the twenty years down the line thing, a lot of it’s political. I think a lot of it is. And, up till now, I can’t say I’m hugely impressed with how the politics of it is all going. And the Crofters Commission, until recently, have been a very nice but useless organisation. They seem to be completely toothless, I don’t know if that’s true or they just don’t have the manpower or whatever. They have just started now tackling what they’re classing as ‘Long Term Absentees’, which is someone who’s been absentee for ten years or more, and I really hope that’s the start of them trying to get a grip on what’s going on here because I think it’s drifted away, it’s become ... not on Eigg really but there are bits of Eigg ... Can you blame someone who’s been sitting on a family croft and had three cows and been getting a few grand a year and suddenly someone says: “I’ll give you sixty grand per house site for three house sites?” I don’t know. What would I do if somebody said that to me? I’d love to think I’d say: “No,” but I’ve never had anything like that so I don’t know. But I think the Crofters Commission has to get control over it again. And they will only do that if they’re leant on by their political masters and they have to get it right because it would appear that a lot of the Scottish politicians, they don’t actually care that much. I mean crofting is this thing that happens in the North and the West and it’s sort of about there and ... certainly your Central Belt ones all kind of have a wee debate about it but they’re not really that bothered and the only ones that are fighting are the local MPs. So I don’t know where that’s all going to go. If crofting becomes an emblem of Scottishness and Highlandness and we’ve got our own parliament, well, this is great, that’s going to work. If it just becomes a bit of a pain; that these people up there seem to be getting all this money then it will all fade away and crofting will just end up as a land raid I think. I am hopeful but Eigg is ... Eigg seems to be different from a lot of other places that I’ve looked at and been to, partly because it’s small, it’s owned by the community ... We try to protect ourselves from that sort of thing, so my view of what’s happening isn’t necessarily what’s really happening in the wider crofting areas. I don’t know. I’m not sure.