A community that has less, uses less, and therefore needs less

This guest post is by Janice Brewer. Janice is studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Specialised Studies at Ohio University, in Sustainable Food System Planning and Development. Janice took the ‘Place-Making and Making-Places’ summer school module at the University of Edinburgh during July 2014 – you can read more about the group and their investigations of Global Justice here. In this post, Janice recalls her visit to Eigg and what she learned about sustainability in an island setting.

While awaiting the Ferry in Mallaig I glanced across the blue waters to a special outline of an island I would soon visit.

The Inner Hebrides is sprinkled with over 30 inhabited islands, each with its own history and charm. Located just to the south of the Isle of Skye sits the Isle of Eigg stretching only 5.6 miles by 3.1 miles. Eigg is decorated with “Singing Sands” beach, dramatic climbs, and sheep Xing with every step. This seemingly “just another island” is pioneering is way out of the ordinary; 17 years ago the – now 83 – inhabitants bought the land and the island became community owned. On 1st February 2008 the island switched off the grid. Eigg is the first of its kind to develop an electricity system powered only by wind, water and solar energy. Electricity would become available 24 hours a day for the first time in this islands history. The community won first place in the Big Green Challenge to tackle climate change and received £300,000 from National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).

During my studies and adventures in Scotland I knew I had to make the journey to this ground-breaking island.  By way of ferry, we met Sue (an owner of Eigg Organics) at the port. She loaded our 10 packs into her vehicle and directed us towards one of the numbered roads for a four-mile walk to the campsite and her farm. The port led to a small building that housed a restaurant, gift shop, toilets, showers (requesting a donation for the energy used), and a community board. The outside displayed a map of the island and all the renewable energy efforts and history. We realized we were visiting on a very special weekend: Saturday 14 June marked the island’s 17th anniversary and was celebrated with a lively Ceilidh.

On our hilly walk we were beside ourselves at the beauty of this island and the serious amount of sheep roaming where they pleased and crossing the road in front of us. Drivers had to pay careful attention on this winding road, not that we saw too many drivers. Bicycles were the transportation of choice on this close-knit island. We passed two cyclers who stopped to take an afternoon nap in the luscious green grass. We passed a lady who excitedly waved at all of us as if she was happy to see us and said, “Have a great time!” Already, we could feel the resilience and strength of this community.

Upon finishing the most arresting 4-miles my feet have ever wandered, we arrived at Eigg Organics. Neil met us, baby sheep at his side, and directed us towards the campsite, pointed out the compost toilet and water site, and stated that any firewood should be collected at the beach. Because trees are numbered on the Isle of Eigg, firewood is hard to come by and generally imported from the mainland. A handful of us journeyed to find driftwood, but found much more drift plastic. We carried the few logs back up the hillside and began the hour’s challenge of starting a fire with the windy island breeze. We made dinner and watched the sun outline the Isle of Rum for what felt like hours. The sun seemed to act as a child at bedtime begging to stay up just a bit longer and postponing sleep with every effort simply because they are not ready to say goodnight to the world.

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The soft gusts of wind on my tent replaced my morning alarm clock. From the hillside, I watched Neil manually pumping gasoline from a large metal tin into his truck – I would assume this process high discouraged the inhabitants from driving too often. I walked down to talk with Neil about how his croft is incorporated with the island’s self-reliance attitude. His beautiful bio-diverse rows of veggies were crafted by Sue and visiting WWOOFers around 16 years ago. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a non-profit organization that connects individuals with volunteer opportunities on organic farms around the world.

Neil explained how the island winters hardly provide too cold or snowy weather, but that the wind and rains are strong meaning some root veggies become hard to grow and maintain. The farm has two small green houses to help in the winter but during the spring and summer months he uses them for starter veggies or crops that like warmer environments. Neil said, “in a bad year [which isn’t often] we have enough for ourselves, but in a good year we have more than enough” so neighbors will come and buy what is extra. I wondered about any connections with the only store on the island. He said he used to sell, but they were very inconsistent and did not seem to understand the process of farming: “one week they would ask for 10 cauliflowers, the next they did not want any, and then the next they want 20.” This makes it makes it hard for business and farming. Out of approximately 32 households, Neil said about 8 or 9 grow food to provide for themselves and there is one lady on the island who makes bread (from imported grains and flours). The rest of the residents purchase imports from the store or bring food from the mainland.

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Neil explained more of the island history and culture during his 22 years of residency. He said “life is easier now than it used to be (when the island ran on generators)” and that people used to depend more on their neighbors. “If you did not know how to fix something, one of your neighbors did.” Now people can rely more on the ferries and the mainland but it has caused the community to be more independent from each other and separated. Neil left me with a memorable thought that the “people of Eigg have less, therefore they use less and need less.” I daydreamed of that philosophy going global.

Over many hours, we hiked our way to the highest point on the island, an Sgurr – “a dramatic pitchstone ridge, the largest of its kind in Europe”. We started at Laig Bay with a visit to the herd of cows enjoying a relaxing afternoon on the beach and preceded to follow a couple of sheep of the cliff side. If the sheep could do it, we surely thought we could. We reached the top and walked through what the group of us called Swamp Town – a marshy area with giant colonies of moss I have never seen in my life. You kind of sunk into them and felt like you were walking on quick sand. We directed ourselves to the dirt road far ahead because we desperately wanted out of Swamp town. We had to climb down to a creek bed, crawl up a small waterfall, and scale a concrete structure to reach this road. We would later find out that the weird concrete structure was the hydroelectric power source! The dam was delicately placed in obvious efforts to keep the quality of the environment and wildlife. Finally, we reached the designated trail to an Sgurr but first we had to trudge through another round of Swamp Town until beginning the climb up millions of years old lava stone.

This 7-hour day hike was worth every 393-meter view. An Sgurr offered a panoramic landscape looking so unreal that it seemed as an oil painter’s masterpiece that had taken a lifetime to craft. From the nose we could see the windmills, solar panels, hydroelectric dam just traveled and of course Swamp Town: a monumental glimpse of an innovative and empowered community creating a vision of sustainable futures and sparking inspiration to all who visit.

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