There’s something particularly satisfying about observing an island from the summit of its very own mountain. As we stood at the top of An Sgùrr, the only peak on Eigg worthy of the name (and, for gatherers of arcane facts, the largest pitchstone ridge in Europe), we gazed over the sheer cliffs at a land turned a warm russet by seas of dormant bracken and heather. To the north lay the silver beaches of Laig Bay and Singing Sands, and the imposing one-and-a-half-mile crescent of the Cleadale cliffs. Looking south-east, we encountered a more homely scene – copses on lower slopes, and tiny Castle Island, protecting Eigg’s jetty from the vicissitudes of the Minch strait.
What was almost as satisfying is that I climbed An Sgùrr in my shirt sleeves. In February. But if that’s just another sign of the weirdness that is climate change, at least no one can blame the good people of Eigg (known as Eigeach or Eiggers), for they have just celebrated nine years of producing virtually 100% of their electricity via the first grid in the world powered by a combination of wind, solar and hydro schemes. What’s more, all the cables are underground, so not a single electricity pylon tarnishes Eigg’s natural beauty.
Seven miles off the west coast of Scotland, Britain’s most eco-friendly island is only 12 square miles in area and has a population of around 100. But it boasts two museums, its own microbrewery (Laig Bay Brewing Company), record label (Lost Map) and music festival (sorry, Howlin’ Fling 2017 tickets sold out in five minutes) and, yes, a quartz beach that sings in the wind (except when you mistime your visit spectacularly, as we did, and arrive at high tide). And this year the Eigeach will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the £1.5m purchase of the island from its absentee owner by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust – a partnership between the residents of Eigg, the Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Six days of festivities begin on 12 June, culminating, of course, in a ceilidh.
It seemed only right that, given the island’s relaxed pace of life and green credentials, we should journey to it in like manner, on the sleeper from London to Fort William, before enjoying the famously beguiling West Highland Line to Mallaig. The boat to Eigg sails in the morning, so we holed up at the West Highland Hotel (double rooms from £105 B&B, 01687 462210), waking to a glorious view of the isle from our bedroom window.
Next morning we took the ferry (£7.70 return, calmac.co.uk) from Mallaig to Eigg, where Eddie from Eigg Time, which offers small holiday hideaways on the island, met us at the jetty in his Land Rover – a vehicle that appeared to run as much on prayer as fuel. After we’d gathered supplies from the surprisingly well-stocked shop, he drove us for four undulating miles on the island’s one main road to Cleadale. Here, his wife Lucy walked us up to the secluded Sweeney’s bothy. In the shelter of Cleadale cliffs, the bothy was built three years ago as one of a series of boltholes for artists. Happily for non-artists, it’s also let out half the time to anyone who simply wants to enjoy the island.
Bothy is too rough a word: Sweeney’s is a cosy cube with a well-appointed kitchenette, wood-burning stove and a bed near the ceiling, reached by a ladder. There’s a compost loo and even electricity, courtesy of a solar panel. Meanwhile, an outdoor shower – heated by another solar panel and our stove – meant we could gawp up at myriad stars while washing sundry bits of Eigg off us. But best of all was the glass front of the bothy, which afforded us a view across to the mighty mountains on Rùm, Eigg’s larger neighbour. The one regret of our stay is that we didn’t spot any golden or sea eagles – two of the island’s 130-odd bird species. However, we did strike up a relationship with a very large buzzard that patrolled the skies above our home.
With no wifi, phone reception or television, we felt blissfully cut off from the world and its cares, and nestling down on our first day, while rain lashed the windows, was no hardship at all.
The following morning we set out on mountain bikes we’d picked up from Owain and Laraine at Eigg Adventures. Like most islanders we met, the couple multi-task, so from their shed by the jetty they also rent out kayaks, organise sailing trips and archery lessons, offer guided walks, and look after the island’s new camping pods.
After checking out a museum housed in the former post office and kickstarting our tans on An Sgùrr, we stopped by at Galmisdale, Eigg’s only cafe, to refuel with drinks and chips. Inside we found roughly 10% of the island’s population gathered around a small television, watching Scotland beat Wales at rugby. Only Owain, wearing his native land’s red jersey, was not enthused. And there was still enough time in the day to crawl through the narrow entrance of the Massacre Cave on the southern shore. It was here, in 1577, that almost the entire population of the island – nearly 400 of the MacDonald clan – who had been hiding for three days from a rival clan, the MacLeods of Skye, was discovered by chance, and killed en masse.
“They found some more bones in there recently,” commented everyone on the island to whom we mentioned our visit. And then in rather thrilled tones: “The police had to come over.”
Sunday saw the weekly outing of the Eigg Running Club. “We sometimes get as many as seven coming,” its leader, Laraine, told us. Today, however, there’s just her, fellow Eiggers Becca and Sarah, and the two of us visitors (the islanders’ preferred word for tourists). The next four miles, through forest, up hills and beside Laig Bay, proved an exhilarating cross between a Tough Mudder and a stream-paddling championship, played out for the most part in teeming rain and biting wind to a backdrop of casual chat about castrating lambs.
When we dragged ourselves back to our snug den, we warmed tin cups of spiced rum on our stove and felt the heat return to our bodies. All our Sunday mornings henceforth will seem tame by comparison.
Way to go
Rail transport from London to Fort William was provided by the Caledonian Sleeper (singles from £95 for a berth, £55 reclining seat). Travel from Fort William to Eigg was provided by Scotrail (from £7 single). Accommodation was provided by Eigg Time (from £75 a night or£460 a week). Eigg Adventures rents bikes from March–October, £15 a day. Further information: isleofeigg.net and visitscotland.com
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